Originally created 02/09/02

New park to honor historic site, era



Blacks, free and slave, populated Springfield Village some 200 years ago. A park dedicated to their accomplishments and enduring hopes will open Sunday with Springfield Baptist Church as a backdrop.

A ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. to dedicate the 2-acre site at the corner of 12th and Reynolds streets. Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt's creations for the park, the 40-foot Tower of Aspirations and a fountain, titled And They Went Down Both Into the Water, will be unveiled.

The pieces will be installed today after repair work is completed. The sculpture hit a bridge on the way down from Chicago, but the artist assured organizers it would not hurt the work, said Robert Kirby, president of the Springfield Village Park Foundation.

Sunday's ceremony culminates more than a decade of collaboration among members of Springfield Baptist and civic and government leaders.

The park honors the 18th-century residents of Springfield Village. They were virtual heroes, said Mr. Kirby.

They defied the law to learn to read and to preach, but they also developed trusted relationships to practice religion in freedom, he said.

According to the church, Springfield Baptist was founded in 1787, making it the oldest independent black church in the United States.

The founding could have happened earlier, in 1783, or later, though not later than 1793. Reliable documents from the period are hard to find, said Mr. Kirby.

About 80 years later, the Republican Party of Georgia was founded at Springfield in 1867.

The same year, Morehouse College was founded in the church's basement as Augusta Baptist Institute. The school will celebrate its 135th Founders Day in a service at 11 a.m.

After Sunday's ceremony, visitors will be able to tour the park and the 201-year-old St. John Meeting House, where Dr. Edward J. Cashin Jr., author of Old Springfield, Race and Religion in Augusta, Georgia, will hold a book-signing.

"Springfield was the genesis of the black experience in Augusta and throughout the South," said Erick Montgomery, executive director of Historic Augusta.

The church, as an institution, was the center of community, educational, political and religious life among blacks in America from the 18th century on, said Mr. Kirby, who became involved with the park project through Augusta Tomorrow.

But Springfield was an overlooked Augusta asset, he said. "Virtually no one understood the national significance of how that was the first black church in America, why that was, and how that happened to be."

Some 20 years ago, the St. John meeting house was covered with asbestos shingles and Springfield was faced with deciding whether to tear it down or restore it, said Isaac Johnson, church historian and secretary of the foundation. "They didn't think it was worth anything."

As Mr. Johnson, a fifth-generation member of Springfield, dug through old folders, the history of the church became more than just vague stories passed down from generation to generation, he said.

A consultant was hired to evaluate the meetinghouse. The report that came back said that it was worth preserving. About 80 percent of the wood is original, not counting the heart pine flooring, which is about 60 percent original, said Mr. Johnson, who later refinished the floor himself after restoration funds ran low.

The St. John building, currently used for receptions, prayer meetings, Bible studies and Sunday school, is available for guided tours by appointment.

But preserving Springfield Baptist was not enough - the black community's history needed to be saved, and that was the impetus for the park, Mr. Johnson said.

In coming months, some 100 plaques with a chronological history of black Americans at Springfield Village will be installed in the park. A dedication is tentatively scheduled for the fall, Mr. Montgomery said. "It gives us an excuse to have another event."

Plans for Springfield Village include a living-history museum, depicting the life of American blacks in the 18th century, but there is no target date for completion.

For more information, call Springfield Baptist at 724-1056.

UNVEILING

WHAT: Unveiling and dedication of Tower of Aspirations, And They Went Down Both Into the Water and the Springfield Village Park

WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday; registration, 12:30 p.m.

WHERE: Springfield Village Park, on the corner of 12th and Reynolds streets

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.