Before the Civil War, as the population of free blacks grew in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, just northwest of Broad Street and Court End, Ebenezer Baptist Church was established to meet the need of parishioners who preferred to have a church directly in its community. Prior to 1858, when Ebenezer was founded, many blacks worshipped at First African Baptist Church at Broad and College Streets, in Court End. This new church body was formed as a daughter congregation from First African Baptist. After the war ended in 1865, the body of Ebenezer continued to grow. In 1873, a new building was erected at the intersection of Leigh and Judah Streets, formally 216 West Leigh Street – the site of the original structure. This historic landmark continues to serve as a dynamic influence to the community.
Between 1907 and 1912, the city’s building inspector Henry Beck condemned all church steeples, which included that of Ebenezer Baptist Church. One of the most unique features of Ebenezer Baptist is the cupola with its four spires at its highest position, instead of the more common steeple tower. This design overhaul led by noted architect, Charles T. Russell, the first African-American to hold an architectural practice in Richmond, changed the original form from Victorian Gothic to the Neoclassical design that was Russell’s preferred style as evidenced in many of the buildings he shaped in Jackson Ward.
After the war, as many prominent blacks built their homes and successful businesses such as barber shops, mercantile shops, banks, and grocery stores, they were in a position to address the need for adequate education for their children. The parishioners of Ebenezer Baptist along with other Jackson Ward residents worked together to diminish the deficiency in the neighborhood’s educational resources. In 1866, three years after the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, the first public school for the city’s African-American children was formed and housed in the church’s basement. The church’s commitment to education expanded as Hartshorn Memorial College, the first college for black women, was later founded in the basement of the church in 1883.
In the 1970s, a modern, streamlined extension was added for social and meeting purposes. Ebenezer’s members including many renowned local black politicians, educators, doctors, and attorneys have maintained the legacy of the church’s inspirational role and its history. Even as the church building and its congregation served Richmond’s black community, this city has received great benefit from the contributions Ebenezer Baptist Church has provided through education.
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