It was a rare person who transgressed the draconian laws issued in the 1800s forbidding the teaching of reading to any slave. Those who did take the risk of violating those early laws faced fines of $400, a fortune in that day, or worse, up to 20 lashes in public.
On Galveston Island, the all-white First Baptist Church, in an unprecedented burst of liberality uncharacteristic of the times, admitted five male slaves as members. The year was 1840. As more blacks came, an all-black church was formed. It met first in the less hospitable courthouse and later in its own building, though the members couldn’t hold title to property themselves until after the Civil War.
Roland Thomas, a direct descendant of an Avenue L founder and the oldest living member of the Thomas family, which is all but synonymous with the church itself, explained that in their own building slaves could learn to read the Bible and write for the first time. They were ensconced in the sacred space conferred by the altar of God — a boundary which even the most evil slaveholders would be required, by culture and convention, to respect.
“You couldn’t learn to read as a slave back then; it was actually illegal,” Thomas said. “But at Avenue L it was possible, since it was a safe place.”
One hundred seventy-five years later, Avenue L Missionary Baptist is still focused on God, education and the young.
It’s hard to characterize the confluence of community, culture and church that has taken place for generations at Avenue L. The modern, suburban megachurch offers no parallel for the persistence and power that comes from being the weekly center of focus for so many families continually for dozens of decades. The Thomas family, which traces its name back to one of the enslaved founders, now stretches to six or seven generations, depending on which member of the clan is doing the reckoning.
The Rev. E.R. Johnson, who now leads the historic church, agreed.
“Over the years, what God has done for this church is for it to become an integral leader in the faith-based community in Galveston,” he said. “He has kept it in the forefront of families for generations with its rich history. You continually keep that faith for the people of God as we grow to the next level.”
Lawrence Thomas, a close relative of Roland and also a longtime member, said that emphasis on youth paid off for Avenue L, even in this age of the “Nones,” the disaffected of American’s post-Christian culture.
Now in his 60s, this Thomas came of age in a Galveston where blacks were still not equal members of society. Although education had become universal, life in the 1950s was far from equally shared.
“Growing up there were places like the [old] Pleasure Pier where blacks weren’t allowed to go,” he said. “So Avenue L was the place we came to have fun. It was the one safe place we could go as young people.”
Mary Patrick coordinates the children’s ministry at Avenue L. Her programs combine education, service, practical skills and spiritual formation in an ongoing successful effort to retain the congregation’s youths — a generation that, nationally, is being lost to the church at large.
“We do a lot of things in the community with our students,” she said. “They visit and sing in the assisted-living centers and we hold a Sunday church just for them. We also teach everything from cooking, to public speaking, to singing.”
There are many ways to do church. Some congregations are highly organized, forming committees and providing top-down solutions to individual needs. Avenue L isn’t that type of church. Here, members pursue a more fluid, organic model that might be termed “See a need; meet a need.”
“If a student has needs here, someone will meet them,” Patrick said. “One woman saw three girls from a family; she took them to lunch and then to Wal-Mart to get them school clothes and supplies.
“We have individuals who will work with schools and parents to meet needs: spiritual, mentoring, social or even legal referrals — often they don’t even have to ask; folks just know what to do.”
Although Avenue L is subtitled “Texas’ oldest black church,” it is has members from various races and even a few foreign countries. Someday soon, cruise passengers arriving in Galveston may consider this a must-do Sunday stop, one as salutary as those in New York City. There, various tour companies funnel visitors through Harlem’s finest old houses of worship. The historic black church has become a strong cultural drawing card for a generation of tourists from the Northeast and Europe.
“Sixty of Harlem’s 338 churches take part in the gospel sightseeing trade,” reported the online Slate magazine on this contemporary phenomenon.
Why? The intensity and style of worship; the rich, structured singing and musicality. The 21/2-hour worship services, typical of both Harlem and Avenue L, are the kind of attraction that is a felt need — something missing from the often purely secular diet of world travelers.
Case in point: A recent Facebook post on Ramon Blakley’s account gave Avenue L a five-star rating.
“We cruised out of Galveston and stopped in for worship and prayer before boarding our ship,” the post said. “If time allows, I highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area.”
Modern man is then found in awe, not of some elaborate, complex and ornate cathedral by the sea, but instead of a somewhat simpler sanctuary filled with the fervent faith of families singing and swaying to some of the same songs that slaves sang 175 years ago.
Sunday visitors witness people possessed with the same desire to see the next generation become more spiritual, more free and more involved in the cause that built this 100-year-old sanctuary at 2612 Ave. L.
Constructed after the tragic 1900 storm with a deliberate intent of “never again,” this composite building has not sustained significant damage from any storm since, including Hurricane Ike. The forethought and diligence that went into those early 20th-century renovations are another reason for Avenue L’s continuing influence. When newer churches were washed away by passing cyclones, it not only remained, but also opened its doors each time to host its fallen sister churches.
This church, Matthew the Gospel writer might then have pictured, is one built on the rock, not on sand. A place meant or destined to hold against the storms physical and spiritual.
“Construction of the present brick church began in 1916 and was completed at a cost of $18,000,” the official Handbook of Texas says. “In 1973 the church began renovations that included the installation of air-conditioning and heating and the refurbishing of the stained-glass windows. A historical marker was placed at the church site in 1981.”
The official anniversary was commemorated in February, but all of 2015 has been designated to celebrate the legacy of those first five men who broke new ground by daring to believe free.
Avenue L welcomes visitors at its Sunday services.