Renee Hubbard, trustee at First Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock, was 13 when she heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak from the church’s pulpit to inform the Black community that it was midnight — time to move and time to work to grow as a people.

 

The year was 1963. King had just been released from prison in Alabama, having written “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and he was four months away from delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. For Hubbard and the other teens at the church, it was like watching a mythological figure come to life.

 

“He was actually in our presence, and we were overwhelmed,” she said. “We didn’t have to be told to sit down and be still that day because you did not want to miss anything that he said because everything he said was prolific. It was like you weren’t there, but you were there. It just consumed you so because of who he was.”

 

Adjacent to the church is a small white house where King slept.

The Rev. Cameron Mitchell, senior pastor at First Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock, showed off some unique features, such as a hidden baptismal pool, a 1915 pipe organ and original stained glass windows.

He was not the only civil rights leader to speak at First Missionary Baptist. His contemporary, Benjamin E. Mays, then president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, spoke at the church, and years before either of them became known, famed orator Booker T. Washington spoke there the Sunday after the grand opening of the nearby Mosaic Templars of America building.

 

Hubbard said part of the reason King and Mays chose to speak at First Missionary Baptist was because of their relationship with the Rev. Roland Smith, who was pastor at the time. He was fraternity brothers with King, she said, and the two worked together to organize various rallies, as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

More recently, Hubbard watched then-Gov. Bill Clinton speak for the church’s 145th anniversary shortly before announcing his run for president. She described the experience as “history in the making.”

 

“It was almost like it was written over the top of his head when he was in the pulpit that I am going to be the next president of the United States,” she said. “You just knew it was going to happen.”

historic black church

However, the history of the church dates back long before those speakers were born.

 

The oldest Black congregation in Arkansas, First Missionary Baptist Church was founded by slaves in 1845. Hubbard said the slaves asked their master, Mr. Fields, whose first name is unknown, for permission to build a church. At the time, they worshiped with the white congregation at Missionary Baptist Church. The white parishioners sat downstairs, and the Black congregants sat upstairs, Hubbard said. Fields said yes.

 

The first pastor was the Rev. Wilson Brown.

 

The congregation first worshiped at a small government building downtown, and then they built a church on 10th Street. The congregation soon outgrew the building, so members of the church built a small church at the location of the present church at Seventh and Gaines streets. Even more people began to attend, so, in 1882, the congregation laid the foundation for the iconic structure that exists today.

 

The red-brick cathedral includes Gothic details, such as the pointed arches encasing its doors and stained-glass windows. Corbeled brickwork adorns the exterior. A sharply pitched gable roof shelters the worship hall, and the entrance is flanked by two rectangular, buttressed towers, a three-story tower on the left, and a two-story tower on the right.

 

The true beauty of the stained-glass windows is revealed inside, where a magnificent pipe organ added in 1915 sits behind the original pulpit where King spoke. A balcony with two wings overlooks the worship hall.

historic black church

Mitchell said the pulpit conveys a sense of greatness from the time when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the historic church.

One unique feature of the church is the baptism pool, which was built beneath the pulpit because the parishioners of the day did not feel they could freely baptize members in public. Other treasures of the church include a Bible that predates the Civil War.

 

Hubbard herself is a fixture at the church. Now 73, she said she was in a baby contest at the church, which she has attended her entire life. She said she enjoys the essence and history of the church, as well as the many people who have touched her heart there.

 

“The members of our church have always fed us,” she said. “When we were young, when we were off and gone away to college, when we came back from college, they were there for us. Whatever was going on, they seemed to have a second sense about us, so they were very careful with us. They were very caring with us, and I miss those members who are gone on, and it’s so many of them who are no longer with us who were so valuable and who had such wisdom and such love for us as young people.”

She added that although the church has been downtown for a long time, few people know about it, and many assume it is a white church. However, like a phoenix, the church is rising to embrace a new era of worship.

 

“My hope for the future of the church is that we can revitalize and we can restore, that we can renew and we can reimagine what we can be in the next 10 years,” she said. “I think that — I know that we’re going to evolve. I know that we’re going to change, and I know that we’re going to grow, and so I’m looking forward to all those things happening.”

 

The Rev. Cameron Mitchell, senior pastor, came to the church through unusual circumstances two years ago, when First Missionary Baptist merged with his church, Mount Harmony Baptist Church at 13th and Ringo streets. Although he grew up attending Gaines Street Baptist Church — another beautiful downtown Little Rock church highlighted by a recessed facade with a rose window — he said First Missionary was always on the radar.

 

“Everyone knew about First Missionary Baptist Church, so it was one of those churches that has had a great history of educators, of senators and so forth to actually be a part of the congregation,” he said.

Mitchell said he plans to renovate the upper loft area of the church and, eventually, would like to provide tours of the church to the public.

The building is incredible, he said, adding that he would like to one day turn it into a museum and provide tours to the public. He said he also hopes to have the church renovated so that the balcony is more usable in time for the 180th anniversary.

 

“The building is elaborate. It’s been maintained and functioning,” he said. “You can feel the greatness when you walk in and when you’re standing there in the pulpit.”

 

While the church’s history is a point of pride, Mitchell said it is also intimidating to some who expect the church to be highly traditional. It is quite the opposite, he said, adding that the church encourages worshippers to be themselves.

 

“I do believe wholeheartedly that any church that is stifled in traditionalism is not going to survive this new wave of worship,” he said, “because there is a new wave of worship that is going on now where all should be free to worship how they want to worship.”

 

Although Mount Harmony was a Baptist church, it was not a traditional Baptist church in that it welcomed female ministers, he added.

 

“You don’t have women evangelists at a traditional Baptist church,” he said. “Well, I licensed women preachers at the old church, and I brought those women ministers with me, and they’ve been openly accepted.”

 

He added that Black churches in general tend to be open when it comes to denomination. A Baptist church may have members who come from Methodist, Coptic or nondenominational churches, he said, and that intermingling of worship styles was on full display after Mount Harmony merged with First Missionary.

 

“Some were used to lifting up hands. Some were used to bowing down. Some were used to running, and others were used to just sitting there, rocking, and some were used to shouting,” he said. “When you mix that all in together, somebody’s going to be offended. Somebody’s not going to know how to handle somebody else’s theology or what they learned or what they believe per se, and so now it’s to a point where it is an open space. It’s free because we’ve had all of these particular people to merge in. Now it is a true open-worship space, and I feel wholeheartedly that it is one of the best worship places that you can visit.”

Added to that is a mix of older and younger generations that Mitchell said has become more cohesive over the past two years.

 

“I don’t know that some of the older members were totally accepting of exactly how some of the younger members would worship or the music choices, but now it’s to the point where, oh God, it is a beautiful scene in there,” he said. “Honestly, I think this is my first time ever really speaking out about this because now I can see the difference and I can see the change within these two years of how they’ve grown to just openly accept them.”

 

He added that the church is in a rebuilding period following a decline that was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

“The church was perhaps one of the most thriving churches in the city, and slowly but surely, it started to kind of decline and die off.” he said. “It’s been maintained real well, but it was falling fast, and then when COVID hit, COVID took a major, major, major, major plunge out of the church because it was an older congregation, and so a lot of things that were once in place were no longer in place.”

Mitchell said he works to feed the homeless population around the church, and the church now partners with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interdistrict Magnet Elementary School in Little Rock to mentor children who may not have male role models at home. In addition, the church has a thriving health ministry that teaches parishioners about fitness and nutrition, as well as an active new-member orientation program.

 

Most importantly, he said, since he arrived at the church, it has accepted more than 100 new members and baptized more than 70 worshippers.

 

“A lot of people don’t know that we are doing some of the moves and making some of the moves that we are making,” he said. “Everybody knows about the church, but nobody knows that the church is back, thriving and back on this side of the Promised Land, if you will, to where it’s doing great things again.”

 

He added that it is significant to have such a prominent Black church in the downtown area of Arkansas’ capital city.

 

“There’s not a lot of Black churches within the downtown area,” he said, “and so for us to be in the downtown area, it puts an extra weight on our shoulders, but it also gives us a weight that we can carry, too, because I know without a shadow of a doubt that we can handle it. It’s just a matter of getting certain things in line so that they will know without a doubt, hey, look, we’re back here, and we’re doing great things.”   

 

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