JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) — During a time when enslaved Africans outnumbered the free in the South, White and Black people worshiped together at First Baptist Church in Jackson.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, the members separated, and the Black members formed the first Black church in Jackson — Mount Helm.
Rev. C. J. Rhodes is the pastor of the city’s oldest religious body of African American believers. The history dates back to 1835 when their African ancestors, the slaves, could not sit in a pew at First Baptist. Instead, they sat on the floor in handcuffs.
“They saw in it the story of God delivering the Israelites they saw in it God delivered Daniel so why not every man,” Pastor Rhodes said.
Prior Lee, a preacher and slave master, donated the bricks for a new First Baptist Church building. He wanted the slaves to have their own place to worship. For about three decades, the slaves met in the church basement while a white man oversaw the services.
“You look at records where they would evangelize slaves, but they would not baptize slaves because they understood spiritual unity would lead to social unity,” Rhodes said.
Born into slavery and later freed by a bloody Civil War, the members were literally forced into the streets with no church to call their own, according to the records at Cade Chapel, which is another body of believers birthed at Mt. Helm.
Thomas E. Helm and his wife donated money and land to the free slaves. The 80 sq. feet property is now the corner of Lamar and Church streets. In1868, the former First Baptist members built their first church, a wood-frame building that stood for 42 years.
During that time the church pressed through the reconstruction period.
“In1890, Mississippi passes a constitution not ratified by the people, not voted on by the people, basically strips away all of the civil rights that Black people gained after the Civil War called the Civil War Amendments,” Rhodes said. “1890s radical racist and backward constitution you see the rise of the Confederate flag that becomes the banner and symbol to the rise of the Confederacy from the ashes of the war.”
That Confederate symbol still hangs just feet from the church at the State Capitol, and still, the church continues to thrive with a housing development for the first time, home owners, and an adopted middle school.
“If anyone can rest on its laws, if anyone can say look at what we’ve done it’s Mt. Helm,” said Tony Bounds of Liberal Trinity Church of God in Christ.
The members are staying true to their mission: to maintain a spirit filled ministry committed to changing lives and changing the community in Jackson.