First organized in 1873 as the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church became the first black church in Birmingham, Alabama.
The congregation originally worshiped in a small building, until the present structure was erected in 1884. The edifice set a precedent for churches in the city.
When the City of Birmingham ordered the congregation to tear down its building owing to building code violations, the church officials commissioned Wallace Rayfield, the state's only black architect, to design a new building. The new church was built for $26,000 under the supervision of T.C. Windham, a black contractor from Birmingham. Windham was a member of the congregation and also served as chairman of the church's trustee board.
The present church, which incorporates a modified Romanesque and Byzantine design, was completed in 1911. It features twin towers with pointed domes, a cupola over the sanctuary accessible by a wide stairway, and a large basement auditorium with several rooms.
The 16th Street Baptist Church served many purposes. It functioned as a meeting place, social center, and lecture hall for a variety of activities important to the lives of the city's black citizens. W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, and Ralph Bunche were among many noted black Americans who spoke at the church during its early years.
Owing to the church's prominence in the black community, and also because of its central location in downtown Birmingham, the church served as headquarters for the civil rights mass meetings and rallies in the early 1960s.
At 10:22 a.m. Sunday, September 15, 1963, the church became notorious around the world when a bomb exploded, killing four young girls attending Sunday school and injuring more than 20 other members of the congregation.
The tragedy of that day generated outpourings of concern, sympathy and financial contributions from all parts of the world. More than $300,000 was contributed to the restoration of the damaged church.
The church was reopened on Sunday, June 7, 1964. A special memorial gift was given by the people of Wales. The moving donation, designed by John Petts, was a large, stained glass window with the image of a black crucified Christ. The window is located in the church's rear center at the balcony level.
Today the 16th Street Baptist Church remains a pivotal reminder that racial harmony is worth pursuing.
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