Friday, March 20, 2015

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Mayor calls High Street Baptist Church a model of service

Calling High Street Baptist Church a model for service to God and community, Mayor Sherman Saunders joined more than 125 citizens Wednesday in dedicating a state historical marker in honor of the church.

The Danville church was founded 150 years ago by freed African Americans and was where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke more than a half-century ago.

“Today, we celebrate High Street Baptist Church for 150 years of service to God, mankind and the community,” Saunders said during his keynote speech. “I can tell you, it was High Street Baptist Church for me, at age 15, that I decided I wanted to be in public service, helping to bring people together, to bring the community together all for the good of mankind.”

Saunders recalled the church’s central role during the local civil rights movement in 1963. That same year, the church hosted King.

“In this church is where I saw Dr. Martin Luther King,” Saunders said. “He is my idol. I still honor him today and his memory.”

Saunders talked about how Danville has changed since 1963.

“Danville then, Danville now. (It’s) Not the same Danville,” Saunders said. “We have made many improvements, and we hope that we will continue to grow in a positive way for our city and became an example for our state and for our nation. I am proud of Danville. I am proud of High Street Baptist Church.”

Saunders presented church trustee Julian Swanson with a proclamation that congratulated the church leadership and congregation on their 150th anniversary.

In addition to the mayor, speakers at the ceremony included Lillie Jones, Dorothy O. Harris, Chris Monioudis and Jim Hare. Jones is a lifelong member of the church and former board director for the Danville Historical Society. Harris, wife of the late Mayor Charles Harris, served as a teacher and principal in Danville. In 1963, she volunteered as a recording secretary at the church for the local civil rights movement. Monioudis is staff member for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. Hare is an architectural historian who serves as division director of survey and register for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources issued the historical marker, which stands outside the church at 630 High Street. Virginia’s historical highway marker program began in 1927 and is considered the oldest such program in the nation. Currently, there are more than 2,200 official state markers.

The City of Danville sponsored the sign for High Street Baptist Church. The marker recalls the church's origins when in 1865 it was founded by emancipated African Americans who withdrew from First Baptist Church. Active in the local civil rights movement, the church served as a center for the movement during its height in 1963 and was host to King during the same year.

The church has served as an anchor for the Mechanicsville community, which is a neighborhood located west of downtown Danville that developed in the late 19th century and early 20th century as an ethnically-mixed, residential district catering to workers in the nearby textile and tobacco-processing facilities. Bordered by Floyd, High, Ridge and Upper streets, the Mechanicsville Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 19, 2014.

Text of the marker:
High Street Baptist Church
In 1865 emancipated African Americans withdrew from Frist Baptist Church, where they had worshiped in the balcony, and founded a congregation later known as High Street Baptist Church. Members erected their first building here in 1873. Fire destroyed that structure and its replacement, constructed in 1878. The present Romanesque Revival church was built in 1901. High Street Baptist served as a base for organizers of the local civil rights movement and hosted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Pastor Lendell W. Chase was president of the Danville Christian Progressive Association, which coordinated nonviolent protests against segregation and discrimination.

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Watch video of full ceremony here