September 19, 2019

Reed, Whitehouse Honor Bicentennial of Congdon Street Baptist Church

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have entered the following statements into the Senate Record in honor of the bicentennial of the Congdon Street Baptist Church in Providence:

  “Mr. REED. Mr. President, today I join with my colleague Senator Whitehouse, the city of Providence, and the State of Rhode Island in celebrating the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Congdon Street Baptist Church, Rhode Island’s oldest Black congregation. For generations, it has been a spiritual home for the community and an unwavering beacon for religious and civil liberties in Rhode Island.

  The church’s founding members left the First Baptist Church, where they were forced to attend segregated services, and established their own house of worship in 1819. Initially named the African Union Meeting House, the church aimed to provide a place of worship and schooling for Black Americans. This mission positioned the congregation as a focal point of the African-American community and paved the way for its continuing advocacy for meaningful social change.

  As one of the earliest African-American churches in the State and the first schoolhouse for African-American children in Providence, the African Union Meeting House opened its doors to a variety of different denominations. Beyond these religious and educational roles, the church offered a meeting place for African Americans to discuss civil rights and other vital issues and hosted literary clubs, youth groups, and numerous other social organizations.

  Unfortunately, the original church structure, which was renamed the Meeting Street Baptist Church in 1840, was torn down in the 1860s without the congregation’s approval amid tensions with its White neighbors. However, the congregation persevered, and a new structure was built on a nearby plot of land in 1875.

  The new church was renamed the Congdon Street Baptist Church and to this day continues to be a pillar of support and advocacy for Rhode Island’s African-American community. Its congregants supported Black Brown University students during their 1968 walkout protesting the university’s lack of recruitment of and support for students of color. In a testament to Congdon Street Baptist Church’s importance to Black Rhode Islanders, the students chose to march from the university to the church and remained there until their demands for change were met. During the mid-20th century, congregants also pressured the State to investigate and end discrimination in employment and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. More recently, the church has, among its numerous activities, increased its outreach to college students, embarked on mission trips to help disadvantaged communities around the world, and tutored local children in reading, math, and writing.

  Today, after 200 years of worship and public service, Congdon Street Baptist Church continues to uplift our State while adhering to its vision of being a ”radically authentic community.” I join community members in Providence and Rhode Islanders across the State in congratulating Pastor Justin R. Lester and the entire Congdon Street Baptist Church congregation on this significant milestone.

 Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, today I wish to celebrate a milestone for Rhode Island’s oldest Black church. In August, the Congdon Street Baptist Church on the East Side of Providence celebrated its bicentennial. From its inception at the nearby African Union meetinghouse and schoolhouse in 1819, Congdon Street Baptist Church has been a centerpiece of spiritual and community life for generations of African Americans in Providence.

  The Congdon Street Baptist Church has weathered racial injustices to flourish as a place for worship and education. Its founding members left the First Baptist Church in America, where they were made to worship in a segregated space. They formed their own congregation in Providence so that people of color could worship in dignity and secure a fitting education for their children.

  Fulfilling that mission did not come without adversity. The original church was demolished in the 1860s at the behest of White neighbors. Unbowed, the congregation rebuilt. The new church, completed in 1875, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1960s, the church served as a sanctuary for Rhode Islanders involved in the civil rights movement. Today, education and empowerment remain hallmarks of the church community.

  Rhode Island was founded on the principles of religious freedom and tolerance. I am proud to have Congdon Street Baptist Church as a cornerstone of that tradition, and I wish the congregation centuries of peaceful worship to come.”




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