One of the Oldest African-American Congregations in Providence Tells a Story of Activism, Community, and Resilience
The Second Free Will Baptist Church (SFWBC) is one of the oldest Black congregations in Providence, formed around 1830 by a group who left the African Union Meeting House, itself formed from the departure of African-American congregants from the white-dominated First Baptist Church in 1819. By the early 1840s, the SFWBC had a church on the west side of the growing city, and in 1842, a new church building was erected at the corner of Pond and Angle Streets, where it would remain for over one hundred years. From its origins, church members were politically active, choosing to join the Free Will denomination because of its opposition to slavery rather than the Baptist convention, which countenanced bondage at that time.
From 1846 until the Civil War, Reverend Edward Scott, himself a man who escaped slavery in Virginia, led the congregation and organized annual Emancipation Day parades to agitate for abolition in this country. Reverend Scott also led the community in action to advocate for equal rights for people of color. Another notable congregant included Sissieretta Jones, the most famous African-American soprano of the late 19th Century, singing at the White House and Carnegie Hall as well as internationally. The activism of the church continued into the 20th Century with pastors like the Reverend Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, an educator, college president, and political activist. Congressman Joseph E. Newsome was also a member of the church, chair of the Board of Trustees, and church organist. While attending a conference in Ivory Coast, Newsome learned of the struggle of Liberian students in the midst of civil war and organized an exchange program that brought many Liberian students to Providence. Many of those students became residents of Providence and members of the church. They continue the church's tradition of providing a haven for immigrants and refugees in a dangerous world.
When the city announced in the early 1960s that it would purchase and demolish the church's home on Stewart Street, the congregation entered a period of crisis and uncertainty. Deacon Ralph Simmons was among those who chose to keep the congregation together and build a new home on Chester Avenue in South Providence. Deacon Simmons is the living memory of the church. He joined the congregation in the 1940s and has been gathering, preserving, and sharing the church's history since that time.
Today, the church building contains the pews and old woodwork of their former home on Stewart Street and embodies a long tradition of activism, community, and welcome.
I want to thank Deacon Ralph Simmons for his hard work over many years gathering and preserving the archives of the church and for his generosity in sharing that work.