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Historic Hallelujahs: Selma Churches Sacred to Community

From the rolling Alabama and Cahaba Rivers that surround the city and beyond to the yards and gardens that dot Alabama’s largest historic district, Selma’s motto “Historic Places, Social Graces” rings true over the city.

While grace and flair abound in the historic homes and downtown businesses of Selma, the same can be said for the city’s many historic churches.

The city and surrounding areas boast an overwhelming number of religious gathering places, almost 200 if you’re counting. While each place of worship is certainly sacred to its congregation, a special group of churches in and around Selma’s city center that have been sacred to church and community members alike for more than 100 years.

There are 15 churches and one synagogue in downtown Selma that have been around since at least 1925, with their congregations starting more than a century ago. These buildings have been beacons of history and change for the city as well as homes for their faith families.

Most of these churches serve as tangible reminders of history. The church architecture of bygone eras is part of the visible storytelling that makes Selma’s downtown so special. The Queen of Peace Catholic Church and First Baptist Church of Selma feature striking gothic facades, while the Selma Ave. Church of Christ, Temple Mishkan Israel, and Church Street United Methodist show Romanesque details of the turn of the century.

A few, St. Paul’s Episcopal and First Baptist, feature Tiffany & Co. stained glass windows. Almost all of the downtown churches feature a dignified bell tower or steeple.

Like many of Selma’s historic homes, the churches are admired for their beauty and grace. It’s amazing that one place is home to so many amazing churches and that so many have survived the 19th and 20th centuries in good condition. Each one adds its own character to the Queen City, making downtown Selma look and feel special.

The character does not stop with simple beauty, though. All of Selma’s historic churches played important roles throughout the community’s history.

The various churches’ early congregations were affected by the Civil War – either by losing members to war or losing their first buildings to skirmishes and the infamous Battle of Selma. It is said that the First Baptist Church’s pastor Leslie DeVotie became the first casualty of the war when he fell off of a boat into Mobile Bay as he traveled to fulfill his duties as chaplain for Selma’s troops.           Other churches, like St. Paul’s Episcopal, were damaged in crossfire of battle. And then after the war, emancipation made it possible for African Americans to start their own congregations, like at the First Baptist Church on Sylvan Street. (now MLK Street).

Temple Mishkan Israel had probably the greatest involvement in civic affairs at this time and provided strong leaders for a growing Selma. Many congregations sponsored evangelistic and community missions around West Alabama in the early 1900’s, while others provided educational facilities for youth.

And while Selma churches have always been sacred places for faith families to meet and worship, they have also been important sites for community meetings and organization. Perhaps none of these meetings were more important than those that took place during the Civil Rights Movement.

The most famous Selma Civil Rights meeting place is probably Brown Chapel AME Church. When an Alabama judge banned public gatherings, members at Brown Chapel risked their safety and rights to open the church’s doors to voting rights organizers and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  This church was the headquarters and starting place of the Selma to Montgomery Marches but was certainly not the only site involved.

Tabernacle Baptist hosted some of the first civil rights discussions in Selma in the early 1960s and led the way for many changes of the era. Other mass meetings and supply distribution drives were held at First Baptist Church on Sylvan/MLK St.

So many important community moments occurred under the steeples of Selma’s historic churches. It is overwhelming to think of how many smiles, tears, families, and hallelujahs the sacred places witnessed. Today, they remain important examples of the spirit of Selma, historic and graceful. They also continue to be spaces where community members, whether it be faith communities or citizen groups, share their ideas, concerns, hopes, and dreams.