Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church, "The Mother Church of Black Primitive Baptists",was organized in 1820 by Elder William Harris while Blacks were still slaves. The Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama was first located in the Old Georgia Graveyard, the site of Huntsville Hospital's present location. In 1872, Saint Bartley was relocated to Henry Street (Fountain Row) where it remained until urban renewal caused another relocation. The first worship service was held at the present location the first Sunday in December 1965.
Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church is 186 years old and is recognized as the oldest Black Church in the State of Alabama. During our 186 years, our church has only had eight pastors: Elders William Harris, Bartley Harris, (Saint Bartley is named for this pastor), Felix Jordan, Elias Patton, Richard Moore, Amos Robinson, V. Castle Stewart and our present pastor, Elder William T. Gladys.
Granted, prior to 1820, there may have been other Black Primitive Baptist Churches or Missionary Baptist Churches in existence in the state of Alabama but slaves did not solely organize them. White people established these churches for the so called benefit of slaves. At the end of the Civil War, whites helped the former slaves to establish their own churches, granting letters of fellowship and character, ordaining deacons and ministers, and assisting in other ways. (Extract from The Handbook on Denominations in the United States). Saint Bartley was organized during the height of slavery in 1820 and figures crucially in the history of not only Black Primitive Baptist Churches across America but in other black churches located in Madison County, Alabama. Saint Bartley had her origin in a graveyard which served as the burial ground for slaves and was the only ground that they could claim as their own. The church was situated among tombstones and a host of flowering trees; surviving relatives and friends had placed many to mark the burial cite of a loved one.
This silent city of the dead, with its church for the living, being outside of the city limits of Huntsville, Alabama with scant protection, had very little preaching at night. Instead of preaching at night, one could hear the mournful sound of the whippoorwill and owl. Here stood the lonesome church which later on like the refused stone in Solomon's Temple, became the headstone of the comer. She was known as the Huntsville African Baptist Church but later changed her name to the Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church and is the oldest Black Primitive Baptist Church and, for that matter, in the state of Alabama. She was organized by a black man for slaves to worship in. She is the oldest church connected with the Indian Creek Primitive Baptist Association. The church was admitted by a Petitioner Letter into the White Primitive Baptist Association in 1821, as gleaned from the White Primitive Baptist of North Alabama. Further, the church is a permanent fixture in the history of Huntsville since it was organized fifteen years after John Hunt founded the city.
Leslie Jeffreys, a local historian reported: "Some suggest it was located under the parking lot of the present Huntsville Hospital." Some of those who remember and many of those who have heard of the travesty of injustice perpetrated against the Black community of Huntsville and Madison County, get angry about it. From others who have discovered the disturbed bones and pieces of coffins and grave markers, outlandish suggestions that it was the site of an ancient Indian burial ground were heard even in 1999. The truth is that Huntsville Hospital is built over a cemetery still used "by blacks for funerals" as late as the early 1900's. There are members of Saint Bartley (Deacon Charlie Lockhart) that still remember the location and can still visualize the layout of the graveyard with its old iron fence broken down by time and violence from the white community.
By the time Alabama became a state in 1819, Huntsville was already a thriving community. Alabama's first Constitutional Convention was held in Walker Allen's cabinet shop, the largest vacant building in the city of Huntsville. Prominent citizens were acquiring vast amounts of property and building mansions that have withstood nearly 200 years of war, weather and urban renewal.
One of the many transactions as recorded in Deed Book G, page 183, in the Madison County Courthouse, shows that on September 3, 1818, LeRoy Pope and his wife Judith sold property to the city of Huntsville for $75. The surveyor's report describes it as being on the West Side of the Meridian Road leading to Ditto's Landing and on David Moore's North boundary. Described as two acres more or less, it was sold for the express purpose of a graveyard for the town of Huntsville.
Leslie suggests, and it's probably true, that the deed indicates that the graveyard was to serve the town of Huntsville because it was not possible to purchase property specifically for a black cemetery without first acquiring a white cemetery. She suggested that there were some who suggested that this property marked the beginning of the present-day Maple Hill Cemetery but it was in fact the "Old Georgia Graveyard" located near present day Governors Drive and Madison Street.
This writer believes that the name "Old Georgia Graveyard" was given because the slaves migrated from Savannah, Georgia to Huntsville with their masters. These slaves, had in some way, been associated with the Savannah African Baptist Church" which was under the leadership of the Elder Andrew Bryan at that time. I cannot deny that in all probability that both whites and blacks were buried in this cemetery for a time and perhaps the whites had their name for it as well but it eventually became the burial grounds for blacks only. The city of Huntsville Hospital adopted rules that prohibited the burial of whites and blacks in the same cemetery!
Leslie pointed out in her article entitled, "Silent Victims" that the site of the new city cemetery proved to be an unfortunate one. Early accounts show the area was prone to flooding and was a virtual swamp for much of the time. After only four years, The Georgia Cemetery was deemed unsuitable for burial and LeRoy Pope sold the city another tract of land, later to become known as Maple Hill Cemetery." The cemetery was unfit for the burial of whites but it was all right to bury slaves in this flood prone area!
The Old Georgia Graveyard "quickly became a focal point for the black community since it was the only place in Huntsville they could claim as their own." The founding pastor of Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church and members resorted to the graveyard for purposes of worshipping God under the dogwood and other flowering trees that had been planted there. From this solemn site Elder William Harris delivered powerful spiritual sermons of encouragement and hopes for a people so severely oppressed under the heavy hand of cruel masters and evil men. During this time many slaves along with some whites had mustered the courage to challenge the entrenched power that supported and sustained slavery in this country. Revolts were occurring in particularly every populated section of the country, particularly in Virginia and the Carolinas. Fearing such actions in the state, Alabama enacted a law in 1833 that prohibited slaves from assembling in large numbers, even for spiritual worship, unless a white man was present to regulate their discussions. Freedom talks and issues of God given equality and rights were outlawed! Yet the message of hope went out! They found ways to conduct night worship services and they developed spiritual songs and hymns to communicate deep meaning messages to slaves from the Old Georgia Graveyard.
Eventually the slaves were able to erect a building within the graveyard and that building was known as the "Huntsville African Baptist Church". In spite of the restrictions placed upon the slaves, the church grew and spread its roots throughout Madison County during slavery. It is commonly supposed that trustworthy slave preachers were allowed to travel from plantation to plantation within a given area for purposes of preaching the gospel where such preaching among slaves was permissible. It seems to this write that Elder William Harris had the opportunity to establish a fellowship with men such as Elder Henry Burwell, who established the Beaver Dam Primitive Baptist Church in mid-1800s. It is not known what this church was called when it was first established but given the past practices of both slaves and free blacks, that name was somehow associated with their African heritage. It was these two pastors plus the pastors of the Indian Creek Primitive Baptist and Meridianville Bottom Primitive Baptist Churches who organized the Indian Creek Primitive Baptist Association five years after the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1865.
While the slaves could have done with the violence of war, the suffering that it brought to both black and white communities, the objective of the war was welcomed by those who had suffered severely. The Huntsville occupation by Union soldiers resulted in the destruction by fire of the small church that had been built in the Old Georgia Graveyard. After the war, President Ulysses Grant appropriated money for rebuilding the church which was rededicated in 1872 in a nearby location. At this time the name of the church was changed from "Huntsville African Baptist Church" to "Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church" in respect for the saintly behavior of the pastor.