In 1840 Galveston’s newly formed First Baptist Church organized a church for its members’ slaves. Named the Colored Baptist Church, the congregation started with five members. In the 1850s the church became known as the African Baptist Church with services held in a building located at 26th Street and Avenue L. That property was purchased from the Galveston City Company for use by the congregation by First Baptist pastor, Rev. James Huckins, and trustees Gail Borden, Jr. and John S. Sydnor. The land was formally deeded to the membership after the Civil War when the congregation was reorganized under Rev. Israel L. Campbell as the First Regular Missionary Baptist Church in 1867.
In 1891 a new building arose on Avenue L, only to be badly damaged by the 1900 Storm. The church was rebuilt under the leadership of Rev. S. W.R. Cole, who was succeeded in 1903 by Rev. P. A. Shelton. At about the same time the present name, Avenue L Baptist Church, was also adopted.
From 1904 until 1933 Rev. H. M. Williams, moderator of the Lincoln District Baptist Association served as pastor. In 1905, under his leadership, a new frame building was constructed at a cost of $7,500. By 1915 the congregation had outgrown the new church, and in 1916 Tanner Brothers Contractors and Architects, an African-American firm laid the cornerstone for the present building dedicated on January 7, 1917. A mortgage burning ceremony on December 29, 1919, left the congregation free of debt.
The red brick church with its twin towers is a good example of the distinctive architecture of African-American Protestant churches built in the South during the first half of the twentieth century. It features stained glass windows, a semi-circular gallery, and a baptismal pool. The late Victorian frame church was incorporated into the rear of the existing building and is still in use.
Rev. G. L. Prince led Avenue L from 1934 to 1956. Under his leadership, the pulpit was enlarged and a second story was added to the 1905 frame church. Rev. Prince was succeeded by Rev. R. E. McKeen who organized the first radio broadcast from the church and led a $150,000 renovation project that included the installation of central air-conditioning and heat.
On February 28, 1982, Avenue L Baptist Church was designated a Recorded Texas Historical Landmark and a Texas Historical Commission marker was unveiled. The oldest African American Baptist church in Texas, church archives contained original slave documents that were donated to the Galveston and Texas History Center at Galveston’s Rosenberg Library.
The Rev. Andrew Walker Berry, the youngest minister in the church’s long history, was elected pastor and installed on March 17, 1985. Rev. Berry was a noted composer and prolific writer of gospel songs who published over 100 songs through his company, Musico. Rev. Berry preached his final sermon on Sunday, January 28, 1990, and died the following day. Avenue L’s most recent pastor, Rev. Clifford Thompson, died suddenly in December 2005. Reverend E. R. Johnson serves as the current pastor, called to serve in 2008.
Galveston Historical Foundation