Elm Street Baptist Church
(originally written in 2002; revised 2018; edits March 2019 include spelling, Added pastor to list, corrected interviewee name)
Williamsburg, KY, April 27, 2002
It’s a subtle thing. You might not notice them at all. The bullet holes in the window might be noted and then forgotten if it weren’t a church. They might even be dismissed with an annoyed sigh if they were found in any other church in Williamsburg, Kentucky. But this happens to be the oldest extant black church in a small town with a church on nearly every corner and a few in the middle of the block. It is not unnoticed.
Like its congregation, the Elm Street Baptist church is aging. One does not need to leave the car to see the gaps in the siding where birds and squirrels have taken advantage of the deterioration. The spire is gone from the steeple and the glass front is missing from the sign where the pastor’s name should be. The yellow film that once simulated stained glass is faded and curling. Yet the church is still alive and you can see some attempt to keep ahead of the decay of an old building. Newish vinyl siding covers just the front of the church and the steeple, but does not continue around all four sides.
Someone has been keeping the grass trimmed though, and purple irises bloom where the steps meet the street. New steel doors open into the heart of the church. Reverend Gerald Littlejohn is not one for sitting still. He never sat down for the entire 4 hours we visited. In addition to the small congregation at Williamsburg he also serves as pastor to his congregation at the First Baptist Church at Jellico, Tennessee. Jellico is about 15 miles from Williamsburg and is a much larger city. The church there was burned in 1987 and he worked with his community to rebuild. His father was pastor at that church which was built in 1914. It had evolved, he said, from a brush arbor meeting where he could trace his family’s involvement since the nineteenth century before there was a building.
When we came upstairs Rev. Littlejohn laughed and told me the church was haunted. He jumped on the floor in front of the entrance trying to influence the ghostly lights.“These lights come on and off by themselves,” he said. The old style wires with single light bulbs were wrapped in black electrical tape. “I’ve tried to fix them but they still come on by themselves.”
The Elm Street church needs restrooms on the main floor, he says.“Some of them [the older church members] say they don’t come anymore because they can’t get up and down these old stairs to the restrooms.” He smiles and recalls that there was only one outhouse at the old Jellico church in the sixties when he was a child. No one stayed home over the restroom situation. He acknowledges that the stairs are difficult to negotiate and he would love to have upstairs facilities.
The old organ that had been mentioned by people I had spoken to before this day, sits in the back of the church behind the pews. Its dark varnish is crazed and a piece of decorative trim is broken. I lifted the lid to touch the keys, to connect to the fingers that made music here long ago, as if they would speak to me from the past. The labels are missing from some of the knobs. The keys have yellowed and are dusty. The gold letters that tell us who made the organ have traveled well through the years though. Real people pounded out their joys and sufferings to God on these keys and so its age takes on the qualities of character instead of decay.
An old upright piano sits opposite the newer organ at the front of the church. I remembered Mr. Arnold Umber telling me that he played piano here sometimes as a younger man and I assumed that was the piano he would remember. It is older than the other two spinets and I want to spend time here, but Rev. Littlejohn called me to the pulpit to see the old Bible there. I put the cover back without touching these keys and moved away to the book.
He pulled the heavy old volume from a shelf in the pulpit and laid it on the carpeted floor on a spot where the sun was shining. The large Bible was looking well used since it was presented 70 years ago. The black leather cover was separating from the spine a little and some pages had loosened and were fraying.
The Bible had been presented to the church by the Women’s Missionary Society in the 1930’s. Inscribed by one hand in that beautiful old-fashioned script, the first page read:
Presented to the
Elm St. Baptist Church
Women’s Missionary Society
May 31st 1933-36
Mae J. Mayse, Pres. – Sidney Smoot, Sec’y
Lelia Houston, Treas.
Etta Mae Wright Alice Foster
Mrs. Lizzie McNabb Ruth Smoot
Dorothy Mack Georgina Turner
Mrs. Josh Smoot
This was a special gift. The women of this church had left their marks here. An act of love during the Great Depression had reached through time to us. Did they think of that when they bought this book? Those 12 women would never be forgotten as long as that Bible existed.
As I toured the building, Rev. Littlejohn shared his dreams of building a church that included children and elders and of repairing and rebuilding the structure and the congregation. We sighed over plumbers who didn’t show up and worried over the encroaching college. We discussed gaps in the foundation blocks and inadequate wiring. We walked around the outside perimeter of the church and discussed the gaps in the eaves before returning inside. I asked about the church members, and I wished there were a roster of folks who had attended.
“Here,” he said. “I came across these.”
Inside a glass fronted bookcase were stacks of Sunday school attendance records. Each student’s name was recorded and their progress with their lessons. From the late 1940’s into the 1970’s children’s names and their teacher had been entered in the record books each Sunday. I visited with the books for awhile and began to feel overwhelmed by the information and the urgency to record it. Though he offered to let me take them with me to copy I declined. It seemed very important that they stay there. I didn’t want the responsibility just then. I suggested that I come back another time and copy them.
There is love in that simple frame structure. Most of the descendants of the founding families have moved away from the hardship that came with life in a small Appalachian town. Their great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren live mostly in the cities of the north — Louisville, Dayton, Toledo, Detroit, Brooklyn. Some may have never seen this part of America and know nothing about this church. The lives and communities of the ‘colored’ people of Whitley County is becoming lost and so there is an urgency to preserve this history.
The Elm Street Baptist Church Beginnings
Whitley County records show that in 1900 the congregation of the High St. Colored Baptist Church expanded and moved up the hill onto Elm Street. It’s unclear at this time just how large the congregation was since no records have been found from the early church.
In 1900 three men signed the deed for the present structure that is known as the Elm Street Baptist Church. Watson M. Miller, Thomas McIntyre and James Dockins as trustees of the “High Street Colored Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Ky” purchased the present property for “two hundred dollars with accrued interest.” ¹
The property was purchased from G. A. Denham and his wife Sarah S. Denham on April 17, 1900. The land had been owned by Denham’s mother and it appears that the sale of this property was to settle her estate.
The deed indicates the name of the church as the High Street Colored Baptist Church which implies that the original congregation met in a building on High St. It also indicates the new location as being adjacent to the railroad depot land and right of way.
The train still runs through the town at the foot of the hill where the church stands but the street names have changed and that road is now called Elm Street. The deed refers to its location as the top of Academy Hill. The academy referred to, is of course, the Williamsburg Academy that would be absorbed by Cumberland College in 1913, and is now The University of the Cumberlands.
Thomas McIntyre would have been about 35 years old in April 1900. The census from that year shows that he was a boarder at Mrs. Dollie Ellison’s home in Williamsburg. He worked at the sawmill.
Watson Miller was 60 years old in 1900 when he signed the official documents as trustee for the church.²
While so far no details about James Dockins have been found, Mrs. Irene Haun of Williamsburg shared the background of her great grandfather, Watson Miller. Mr. Miller was born in 1840 and enslaved in Campbell County, Kentucky. He married Kissah in 1858 and they had two sons when he joined the Union Army in 1863. He was stationed in Knoxville, Tennessee until 1866. After he was mustered out he returned to his family in Campbell County. They remained there until about 1880 when they moved to Whitley County. The the Millers had eight children and the second oldest, Albert Lee, was Mrs. Haun’s Grandfather.³
Pastors of Elm Street Baptist Church:
- 1930s – 40s James E. LaRue
- 1940s Pat A. Trent
- April 1958 Raymond Willis
- 1969 H. A. Mize
- 1971 Robert Brown
- 1972-73 Joseph McDowell
- ? – ? G. W. Looney
- ?- ? Eli Davis
- 1984- present Gerald Littlejohn
Some Known Family Names- Elm Street Baptist Church
Saturday night suppers at Effie Umber’s.
“They had the suppers at Effie’s instead of the church. There was no basement then … How they could make any money I don’t know. They sold hot dogs for 10 cents and a washtub filled with ice had pop for a nickel.”
Some children didn’t always pay too much attention to learning to read at school but everyone had to read out loud at Sunday school.
“Miss Umber would pull your ear and make you read.”
There was bible school every Sunday, but at some point church services alternated Sundays between the Baptists and the Methodists. There weren’t enough preachers for either religion so a circuit-riding preacher would come through and preach every other week for his denomination and church members from the other congregation would join them.
Much more work needs to be done to find the early history of this church. For example, names of those early members have not yet been uncovered. Hopefully this information has not passed out of our reach.
Do you have memories of this Whitley County, KY church or another, a community, or people you would like to preserve from this area? Big stories and small are important. They remind us of family and friends, and they complete all our histories of where we come from and who we are. Please post your memories here or contact me. You can also contact (and support) The African American Genealogy Group of Kentucky (AAGGKY) @ firstname.lastname@example.org
- Whitley County KY deed book pg 540 on file at Whitley Co courthouse, Williamsburg, KY.
- 1900 US Census; Whitley Co., KY.
- Whitley County History Book Committee. History and Families of Whitley County Kentucky. Paducah KY.: Turner Publishing Co. 1994.
Mrs. Carrie (Bennett) Stewart,
Mrs. Irene (Miller) Haun,
Mr. Arnold Umber, and
Rev. Gerald Littlejohn