Chattanooga’s First Baptist Church is the initial stop on historical visit

    Rev. Dr. William Terry Ladd III. Pastor of First Baptist Church

    Chattanooga, TN. — The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of History and the Africana Studies program will partner with RISE Chattanooga to offer a free walking tour.

    The RISE MLK walking tour will take place 11:30 a.m. on April 10.

    The tour is limited to 20 people. For details, questions or registration information, contact

    The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of History and RISE Chattanooga have expanded an ongoing collaboration, partnering with Leadership Chattanooga on a new initiative: telling the stories of black churches.

    “Understanding the role of black churches in our communities is crucial to understanding the black experience more broadly. Our hope is that we tell the stories from the past while building community in the present,” said Woodson Carpenter, RISE Chattanooga’s community arts strategist.

    RISE stands for Responsive Initiatives for Social Empowerment.

    The initial undertaking is researching the history of First Baptist Church, located just blocks from campus on East Eighth Street between Houston and Douglas streets.

    This spring, students in the American Public History course taught by Kelli Nelson, a lecturer in the UTC Department of History, will be interviewing church members, archiving photographs and documents, recording their process and reporting to the community. Oral histories and documentation will illuminate the importance of the church.

    Historic First Baptist Church, 506 East 8th St., Chattanooga, Tennessee

    “We’re very excited to be able to bring out some of this history that we’ve not been able to explore before, these voices that are often overlooked, and get students involved in understanding how important the black church community is to Chattanooga,” said Nelson. “I tell the people at RISE all the time that I’m so happy to be part of this.”

    According to First Baptist Church’s online history page, the church was initially organized in 1866 as Shiloh Baptist Church by a small group of federal Army soldiers who had served during the Civil War.

    In 1885, the present-day church site was purchased; construction of the building was done by former slaves. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

    Nelson said her class is in the history-gathering stage, which includes researching and digitizing the church’s archives, preserving them for posterity. She and students have met with RISE’s Carpenter and sat in on an interview with First Baptist Church pastor, the Rev. Dr. William Terry Ladd III.

    “What is crucial to us is that the students learn about Chattanooga and the community surrounding them and how important African Americans have been to that community,” Nelson said.

    “The students will be conducting interviews to help uncover the rich history of the church, the building itself and the surrounding neighborhood. They’re also going to do research on when Martin Luther King came to First Baptist.”

    Just 24 years old at the time, King interviewed to be minister of the church in 1954, but didn’t get the job due to his relative inexperience.

    Mike Thompson, head of the Department of History and UC Foundation associate professor, said the department’s theme for spring 2021 is: “The Struggle for Racial Justice and Equity.”

    “Connecting with an organization like RISE is so important for us because it just gives us these opportunities to learn more about Chattanooga and Hamilton County,” Thompson said. “We benefit from that as history faculty members, and we hope that the UTC community more broadly benefits from those kinds of opportunities to learn more about where we live.”

    Thompson said the First Baptist Church research will lead to future projects.

    “We’re trying to expand that archive and draw in materials temporarily and capture them from the community itself,” he said. “Then you have to work through that documentation, and it can be exciting to discover completely unexpected things.”

    The RISE partnership includes a revamped walking-tour series that, coincidentally, includes First Baptist Church.

    “To have that structure there, overlooking the city down the hill towards ML–with UTC above us and with the city below us and Lookout Mountain beyond–and to have an institution right there that was constructed by formerly enslaved people is remarkable,” Thompson said. “It’s a reminder that we need to build better and stronger connections to the community, especially the community that is surrounding UTC.”