By Frank Leone
The Foggy Bottom African American community was anchored in its churches. From about 1910-1960, such churches offered not only spiritual sustenance, but provided community, information, education, activity, safety, and comfort. With “urban renewal” in the 1950s, many members of the congregations moved away and the churches moved with them. Some churches, notably St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (D.C.s’ first African American Episcopal congregation), remain in Foggy Bottom. Many of the churches who moved have flourished in other parts of the City. One of the churches with a large congregation was Liberty Baptist, located at 817 23rd St. NW (between H and I Streets), which sold the property to the George Washington University (GWU) in 1960. GWU’s Science and Engineering Hall (SEH) now occupies the site. In 1962, Liberty Baptist relocated to 527 Kentucky Avenue, SE, where it still thrives.
Liberty Baptist Church of Washington (no relation to the college in Lynchburg VA) was officially organized in November 1869. The original site of the Church is now occupied by the U.S. Commerce Department. The Church’s first pastor, Rev. Edward Willis, of Essex County, Va., was formerly enslaved. Although not ordained, he became a well-known preacher. On “Baptizing Days,” “Bro. Ed” would perform the ceremonies by the Potomac River, before huge crowds. In 1872, a new two-story brick church was built at the southeast corner of 18th and “E” Streets (in Foggy Bottom). In 1914, the Church sold that property to the Red Cross.
In 1914, under its third pastor, Rev. Holland Powell, of Brooklyn, NY, the Church had over 1,000 members. They built a new church in Foggy Bottom at 817 23rd Street, NW., designed by Milburn & Heister, one of the most successful architectural firms in D.C. The firm built courthouses, railroad stations, and other structures in the Southeast U.S. The Church was built in “colonial revival” style, of tapestry brick with granite trim. Over time, the Church installed first a new Kimball then a new Hammond Pipe Organ, made improvements in the structure and purchased adjoining houses on both sides of the Church
The Church was active in social and community activities. In 1903, under its second pastor, Rev. Isaac Tolliver of Waco, TX, it established the first recognition of the Women’s Day Movement in D.C. It was also active in the temperance (anti-alcohol) movement, and in 1901 Rev. Tolliver lead members to pool halls and saloons to sing hymns and disrupt sinful activities. Over the years, the Church established many groups to support the community, including a Youth Club, Flower Club, Men’s and Women’s Clubs, support for the National Capital Day Care Center, Pastors Aid Club, Scholarship Committee, Bible Study Class, Children’s Choir, Youth Choral Group, Gospel Chorus, Nurses Unit and many other auxiliaries. Washington Post columnist Colbert King, who attended Liberty Baptist, recalled that the Church was always open and provided sanctuary (www.foggybottomassociation.org/oral-history).
The Church hosted the first and many subsequent meeting of the Lincoln Civic Association, which advocated for Foggy Bottom residents from 1937 to 1957. The existing West End Citizens Association did not allow African American members, so they formed their own group. Led for many years by Dr. Edward F. Harris, the Lincoln Civic Association fought the D.C. Alley Dwelling Authority’s actions in demolishing Foggy Bottom’s “slums” without providing new housing for displaced African American residents. It also supervised a summer playground in Snows Court (in what is now the Foggy Bottom Historic District) in the 1940s-1950s, even when D.C. cut off funding for the playground.
In May 1960, the Church sold its property to George Washington University. Unlike the U.S. government taking of the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church property in 1944 (for GWU’s hospital), this transaction apparently lacked controversy. GWU renamed the former church “Building K,” and modified it for use as a women’s gymnasium, dance studio, and student activity space. The building was demolished by 2011 and in 2015 GWU opened its new SEH. The Foggy Bottom Association had requested that rather than place a commemorative plaque, GWU should incorporate the Church’s 1914 façade into the 23rd Street entrance design and provide educational materials on the Church’s story, urging “C’mon, GWU, show a little creativity.” GWU installed a commemorative plaque honoring Liberty Baptist Church in 2015.
SOURCES: Liberty Baptist Church History, https://www.libertybaptistchurchdc.org/copy-of-history; “More than Just A Plaque: ‘Building K,’” Foggy Bottom News (3/23/2011); “Building Permits,” Evening Star (8/21/1913); “Prayer Crusaders Go Free,” Washington Post (3/16/1901).