Metropolitan Baptist Church celebrates its 120th year this summer, much of that history in the heart of Soulsville USA where it has served as a beacon for activism and education.
Soulsville USA has been a spiritual center for Dr. Reginald Porter Sr. for much of his life.
Porter attended Father Bertrand High School on Kerr Avenue. He began attending Metropolitan Baptist Church as a baby, a congregation he has served off and on since 1978.
Today, Porter is pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church, having spent much of his professional life there. His first job at Metropolitan was as director of counseling and recreation, a job he held from 1978 to 1991 when he left to pastor Greenwood Baptist Church in Tuskegee, Ala. He was elected in 2001 to succeed the retiring Dr. Fred Lofton at Metropolitan.
The church will celebrate its 120th anniversary in July. Porter said it continues as a home for people who haven’t lived in the neighborhood for years.
“If you grew up here it’s your home,” he said. “People who live everywhere, who come back to visit from time to time, some I maybe haven’t seen in 50 years. They’ll just come through for a visit. A lot of these young people who grew up here stay in touch.”
The church has a rich history in South Memphis. It began in 1896 when a group came out of Beale Street Baptist Church to start Metropolitan. Originally at Fourth Street and Vance Avenue, the church found its way to its current home at 767 Walker Ave. under the leadership of Dr. S.A. Owen, who served as pastor from 1921 to 1972.
A turning point came in 1929. That’s when some $27,000 that was saved at Solvent Savings Bank and Trust was lost when the bank failed.
Member William Lane was a homebuilder. He sold a house and gave the money to the church, replacing much of what had been lost and starting a three-phase process to build what is the current church facility.
The first was the original church in 1929 followed in 1950 by the education building and sanctuary. An office complex and gymnasium were added in 1965.
As one of the few larger African-American churches in the city, the church became an icon in the civil rights era. NAACP meetings were held at the church, setting the example it continues today.
“Our church has always been activists, although not in terms of being supportive of candidates but active in terms of voter registration and civil rights,” Porter said.
The church was home to civil rights icons such as Jesse Turner Sr., longtime treasurer of the national NAACP as well as longtime NAACP executive secretary Maxine Smith and her husband, Vasco Smith.
The church always has had a focus on education. It was Owen who founded Owen College. In 1968 he negotiated the merger with LeMoyne College to form LeMoyne-Owen College. Owen was a vice president in the National Baptist Convention, and helped form the Progressive National Baptist Convention in 1961, which Metropolitan continues as a part of to this day.
That convention had a focus on civil rights, giving a denominational home to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When Owen retired in 1972 he was followed by Dr. Fred Lofton who also would become president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Lofton also developed a scholarship program in 1980. Metropolitan became one of the first churches to adopt a school when it adopted Cummins Elementary, a practice that continues.
“Our church has had a long, stable history,” Porter said. “We continue our same focus today with community involvement, pushing education, pushing civil rights, voter education and registration.”
Churches like Metropolitan Baptist have played an important role in the Soulsville USA neighborhood, particularly during segregation. While hate occurred outside, the church was a safe haven where encouragement was the order of the day. Civil rights organization occurred in the churches because it was always a safe place to plan and strategize.
Porter said that while the civil rights fight is different from the days of segregated Memphis, the struggle continues. He grew up in a segregated Memphis. He was in the sixth grade when the busses were integrated.
He recalls sitting in the highest level at the Malco movie theater in what is today the Orpheum. While Memphis children were excited to see Roy Rogers and Gene Autry at the Mid-South Fair, the city’s African-American youth weren’t allowed in. They could only attend the fair on a specific day, and it was never when those kinds of celebrities were there.
Community closeness was a positive that happened during segregation, Porter said. The African-American neighborhood was tight, with lawyers, judges, doctors, bankers and other professionals living in a close-knit community.
“Everybody was right here together,” he said. “It was a good time and everybody has fond memories when talking about the neighborhood church and school. The difficulty came with the lack of opportunities, riding in the back of the bus, not seeing Roy Rogers at the Mid-South Fair. Fact is it was literally dangerous to be in the wrong place, which meant you might be picked up by police. Whereas today we are protesting and up in arms there is at least some pretense of a police review. If a black kid was shot in the street back then you were just left for dead. Your neighborhood was a great place but then once you go outside the neighborhood and into white areas or Downtown then it’s literally dangerous for you.”
The Soulsville USA neighborhood was filled with African-Americans pushing limits of society, professionals, business owners and community leaders. And the celebrities coming and going added another element to the community.
“Having examples of people who have been able to succeed and can encourage you to attempt great things was helpful,” Porter said. “In this neighborhood most of the people who were Stax celebrities lived in the area. They weren’t distant celebrities. You didn’t see their name in the paper. You saw them as you walked to school. They were positive for us.”
Hear more from Dr. Reginald Porter Sr. about the future of Soulsville at High Ground News' What Smart Neighborhoods Can Learn From Soulsville USA free speaker event on March 14. For more information, email [email protected].