Elm Grove Baptist celebrating 180 years

A seal for the Historic Elm Grove Baptist Church. (Special to The Commercial)
A seal for the Historic Elm Grove Baptist Church. (Special to The Commercial)

The Historic Elm Grove Baptist Church, 3114 S. Mississippi St., in Pine Bluff is preparing for its 180th anniversary celebration at 10 a.m. Aug. 20. The Rev. Jesse Turner is the pastor.

Enslaved Africans built the first church in Arkansas and named it Elm Grove Baptist Church. The year was 1843 when enslaved Africans living on the Robert Johnson Plantation in the Richland Township in the Noble Lake and Cottondale area were permitted to organize a Baptist church. Elm trees were plenteous at the location where they established the church. Thus, the origin of the name Elm Grove, according to a news release from Turner.

An online record revealed an 1860 Census from Jefferson County, which listed all slaveholders at that time, and Robt. Johnson owned 64 enslaved people in the Richland Township in the Noble Lake and Cottondale area, according to the late Arlease Walker, who died in May 2015 at 101 years old, and the late Ora Foster-Roby, who died in Kansas City, Mo., at 95 years old.

"There were two plantations in this area, the Johnson and Couch Plantations, with Highway 65 South as the dividing line for both plantations. The Johnson Plantation was north of Highway 65 South, where Elm Grove Baptist Church sat, and the Couch Plantation was on the south side of the Highway," the women were quoted as saying.

"This writer believes the enslaved Africans from the Couch and Johnson Plantations comprised the Elm Grove Baptist Church membership. The Historic Elm Grove Baptist Church would become the first organized Baptist Church by and for enslaved Africans in Arkansas," according to the release.

According to the elders of the church, all new converts were baptized in Noble Lake following every revival. Idella Hunter, a devoted church member, led a fundraising campaign to purchase the first and only church bell by selling apples for 5 cents each on Sundays and throughout the week.

Members of the church transported the church bell from the Richland Township in the Noble Lake and Cottondale area to its present location in Pine Bluff where it sits in front of the church.

"This writer also believes the enslaved Africans attending the Historic Elm Grove Baptist Church never envisioned their descendants would play such a prominent role in the history of Arkansas and America. Nonetheless, the descendants of these families have made a tremendous impact on African American history," according to the release.

In 2019, the 400 Years of African American History Federal Commission, established by Public Law: 115-102, sanctioned Elm Grove to facilitate the launch of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Va., Aug. 25, 1619.

At midnight on June 19, 2019 (Juneteenth), Senior Pastor Jesse C. Turner and Associate Pastor Bobby E. Butler Sr. led the church in toning the church bell. Church youth rang the bell 20 times to represent the first 20 Africans arriving at Point Comfort and one time for the odd. The ringing of the bell set in motion a worldwide event called "Let's Talk, Let's Heal, the International Day of Drumming and Healing," sponsored by the 400 Years of African American History Federal Commission in Washington, D.C.

The launch would rally countries worldwide, including Dubai, Brazil, Ghana, Cameroon, and Nigeria. The midnight event occurred on Elm Grove Church grounds. An event at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, and Elm Grove activities, were captured and placed in the United States National Archives. The church bell rang out again for another event in 2020.

This time it was to honor an African American Civil Rights icon, the late John R. Lewis, U.S. Representative from Georgia's Fifth District. The bell rang simultaneously with other communities nationwide.

In 1914, Pastor L. C. Culliver and officers of the church, J.W. Watkins, C. Huggins, A. J. Jones, F. M. Mathew, S. Nelson, and C. Lee, laid the first cornerstone that remains in possession of the church. The bell and cornerstone are original artifacts from the first church.

On April 1, 1939, shortly after 3 p.m., a tornado developed in the Noble Lake and Cottondale area. Elm Grove was located directly in the path of the storm and quickly collapsed from the force of the high winds. The storm was over within two minutes, leaving behind wrecked homes and many injuries.

The Pine Bluff Daily Graphic newspaper captured details of the tornado's destruction and injured. Elm Grove membership led by Pastor Joe L. Frazier, its board of deacons, and community friends came together to help rebuild the church, and worship resumed. Elm Grove also served as a public school for the Noble Lake and Cottondale area until 1947, according to Pine Bluff School District records.

Many African American children received early education in the church building. White students living in the area attended school close to Elm Grove; however, as a result of the tremendous damage caused by the fierce tornado winds, Black students attended school at the white church, and white children were all bused to another school in Moscow during the rebuilding process of Elm Grove.

The original church structure in the Noble Lake, Richland and Cottondale area was demolished, and the Elm Grove church family members moved to Pine Bluff. The congregation settled at their present location, 3114 S. Mississippi St., in the city, where they enthusiastically serve the Almighty God.

Taylor Lake, located southeast of the church, was utilized for baptizing new converts. On Sept. 3, 1995, the church moved from two Sundays a month to full-time service under new pastor Turner.

Recognition for Elm Grove includes:

The 400 Years of African American History Federal Commission has acknowledged the church with a partnership letter. Then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Attorney Gen. (now Lt. Gov.) Leslie Rutledge have sent letters of commendation. The Department of Arkansas Heritage Mosaic Templar Culture Center has recognized the church for collaborating with the 400 YAAHC.

The church has received proclamations from Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley M. Washington, and Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr.

  photo  The bell is an original artifact from Elm Grove Church. (Special to The Commercial)

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