A “convenient amnesia” has overcome the black church, the Rev. Al Sharpton said Sunday as Augusta’s Springfield Baptist celebrated its 225th anniversary as the nation’s oldest continuously meeting black church.
“Many of us are behaving like the things we enjoy today were always there. When I look at how far we’ve come and then look at how some of us behave, we have a real problem with amnesia,” Sharpton said.
The pastor, founder of the civil rights nonprofit National Action Network, brought a crowd of 1,000 to its feet as he preached a message on remembering former trials in the historic downtown church, the founding place of Morehouse College.
Springfield was founded in 1787 by free and enslaved blacks, and served as Augusta’s only Baptist church until 1817.
“Two-hundred-and-twenty-five years ago, men and women who were slaves had no rights anybody would respect,” Sharpton said. “They had the mind to come together and form a church, even in those conditions. They praised God anyhow.
“Here we are 225 years later. Black president in the White House,” he said. “There was a time we had to worry about the Klan. Now we shooting each other.”
The community has forgotten where it has come from, Sharpton said. “You forgot what it took to get you here.”
While political leaders joined in the celebration, Sharpton was apolitical from the pulpit.
Springfield’s pastor, the Rev. Hardy S. Bennings III, said the choice was intentional.
“This is not a political rally. Amen,” he said. “We are here to bless God.”
For two hours, church members and visitors sang, praised and prayed in a packed sanctuary.
Sharpton celebrated the church’s historic role in the founding of Morehouse College and Georgia’s Republican Party.
Morehouse originated in the basement of Springfield as the Augusta Baptist Institute in 1867. In 1879, the school moved to Atlanta as the Atlanta Baptist Institute and was later renamed Morehouse College, an institution that has produced several prominent black leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Augusta’s own Rev. C.T. Walker.
The Georgia Equal Rights Association also first assembled at Springfield, marking the beginning of the Republican Party in Georgia.
Sharpton said he was “truly honored” to receive the invitation to speak.
He called Bennings, pastor of the church since 2009, “a young, strong visionary.” Sharpton also called Deanna Brown Thomas, daughter of the late James Brown, “my little sister.”
“Her father was like a father to me,” he said. “Her father took me in when I was a teenager. Much of what I have learned in life I learned from James Brown.”
Earlier in the day, Sharpton visited the downtown statue of James Brown. He also appeared at C.H. Terrell Academy for a performance from the J.B. Academy of Musik Pupils, a non-profit music education program founded by Brown Thomas.
A dozen students played selections from the Godfather’s catalogue of soul hits.
“We’ve been working on this for a year now,” said Neema Colon, 14. “All James Brown songs were appropriate, but we wanted to pick the ones that get people on their feet. It’s been exciting.”
The day’s anniversary events also included a church service with Augusta Fire Chief Chris James, a wreath-laying ceremony to honor former pastors, and the unveiling of a new street name for a portion of 12th Street: Springfield Way.
Mayor Deke Copenhaver, State Sen. Hardie Davis, State Rep. Henry “Wayne” Howard and the Rev. Ernest Brooks, associate campus minister at Morehouse, spoke, along with pastors of area churches, several of which were born out of Springfield.
“For 225 years, this facility, this church, has been a beacon of light in this community,” said Copenhaver, who called Sunday “a historic day in the life of this city.”
Sharpton gave the first offering, handing Sonja Bennings, first lady of the church, folded bills from the pulpit.
“You all stay here and give some money,” he said with a laugh. “I know Deke’s got plenty of money. We’re going to hang out together.”
Sharpton left the service early to catch a flight, but not before receiving multiple standing ovations.
“This was a dream realized,” Bennings said.