Church grew from ‘Bush Harbor’ with community pride

Editor’s note: This series will run weekly throughout 2016 to highlight Bartlett’s history in honor of its 150th anniversary this year.

The Educational Annex

The church’s Educational Annex was formerly the Bartlett Elementary School, which opened in 1910 for grades 1-6 with two classrooms and a chapel.

During 1914-1916, another classroom was added. In 1924 the grade levels were increased up to the eighth grade, and the faculty expanded to seven teachers.

During this period, Julius Rosenwald, an American philanthropist, made a large financial contribution to the school, making improvements possible. He regularly gave funds to build schools and clinics that helped to improve the living and educational conditions of black people in America. In light of his generosity, people came to refer to Bartlett Elementary School as a “Rosenwald School.”

In the early 1930s two more grades were added, bringing the grade levels to 1-10. Grades 9 and 10 were considered junior high. Students were bussed from Eads, Cordova and Prosperity communities. These communities raised funds to purchase a school bus. The students paid 50 cents per week for transportation and maintenance of the bus.

A few years later, the 11th grade was added, and the school began a hot lunch program. At some point in the 1940s or 1950s, the school was changed back to an elementary school for grades 1-8.

In 1965 Bartlett Elementary School was closed because of its lack of adequate facilities and because of integration. The First Baptist Church-Bartlett, located next to the school, needed to expand and in 1967 bought the school from the Shelby County Board of Education. The building was renamed the Educational Annex, where Sunday School classes, special meetings and services were held. The north wing of the building was rented to Breathett’s Funeral Home.

The restoration of the building was a hard struggle. The pastor, officers, members and friends worked diligently to raise and contribute funds. In 1978 the Education Annex and the funeral home were damaged by a fire and were subsequently repaired. On Sept. 9, 1979, the church held a dedication of the Education Annex.

Bartlett Elementary School served for many years as a bridge for improving the education of children in the Bartlett communities, and today it is serving as the First Baptist Church-Bartlett Education Annex, which is helping to enrich the community spiritually. Over the years the church membership has consisted of many former students of Bartlett Elementary School.

In 1865 the local black Baptists petitioned for letters of dismissal from Prosperity Baptist Church (in which most of them had worshiped as slaves) in order to establish their own congregation. Permission was granted, and this was the beginning of the First Baptist Church Bartlett located on Shelby Street. Under the leadership of Rev. Alexander Blew, the black people of Bartlett and vicinity purchased a lot in 1873 upon which they wanted to build a church. According to history, this building was constructed out of bushes and was call “The Bush Harbor.”

Church members began raising money to start building in 1874. Brother Claxton was the clerk; Guilford Lock and Overton Claxton were deacons. Ezekiel Claxton Sr. was a deacon, Sunday school superintendent, choir director, janitor and piano player for the church.

In 1874 the worship facility was renamed Bethlehem Baptist Church. Bethlehem moved to its present site and built a frame weatherboard structure, where kerosene lamps were used for lights and wood for heat. In 1878 under the leadership of Rev. L. H. Greer, Bethlehem was renamed to The Colored First Baptist Church Bartlett, Tenn. A member of the church, Brother Monroe Mitchell, was the architect and builder of this structure.

The name of the church was changed again to First Baptist Church of Bartlett, Tenn. Pastors following Greer were Reverend E. Carter, Reverend W.M. Thomas, Reverend B.L. Claxton, Reverend Ed Hudson, Reverend James Henderson and Reverend B.L. Nabors.

From 1923 through 1958 Reverend James Franklin Collins led this congregation. He was a gospel preacher, builder and teacher. Under his leadership the old frame building was remodeled to a modern building with brick veneer siding and arched ceiling and walls. Many new facilities were added, including hardwood floors, choir stand, baptistry, new pews, the pastor’s study, an usher and choir lounge, restrooms, electric lights and gas heat.

From 1958 to 1963 other spiritual leaders for the flock included Reverend R. Davis, Reverend C. Jones, Reverend G.D. Jones and Reverend J.L. Payne. During this period the church changed its name to First Baptist Church Bartlett. In July 1967 the building fund treasury reached $10,000. On July 24 that year, the old church was demolished and a $40,000 worship structure was built.

The building next door, which had been Bartlett Elementary School, was purchased for the sum of $1 from the Shelby County School Board of Education to be used as an educational building for the growing church.

Under the leadership of Reverend Edgar M. Young (1970-1987), the church reached many milestones. Services were changed from twice monthly to every Sunday, and the church invested in a piano and organ. A sound system was installed, and new carpet and pew cushions were added. From 1988-1999 under the leadership of Revered Kenneth Bohanna, renovations were done to the back of the church, including enlarging the pastor’s study and adding a new secretary’s office, choir room and finance room.

In 1999 the current pastor, Darryl McDonald, took the leadership of the church, and many souls have been added to the membership. He had a vision for the church, and in 2005 the congregation held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new sanctuary. It included a connection to the educational building, a choir room, a sound room, both pastor and first lady studies, secretary and finance offices, a nursery and remodels of the kitchen and dining hall. In 2006 the vision became a reality when they moved into the new building.

Church funds improved greatly, church membership increased and the church has been growing steadily.

One of Pastor McDonald’s favorite quotes is, “But it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” I Corinthians 2:9.

The church has stated its purpose/mission as: “Save the lost and equip the saved, going into the highways and byways, telling a dying world that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Written by Suzanne Griffith Coleman, Special to the Express.