Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and the Debate over the First Black Church
There seems to be a great debate over the title of the first African-American church in DeKalb County. According to some historians, the title goes to Antioch A.M.E. Church founded in 1868 by former slaves. However, others state that the title goes to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church founded in 1849 by a white plantation owner. So what constitutes a black church and which one was the first in DeKalb County? The definition of a black church seems to have two interpretations: a church that caters to a predominately-black congregation or a church founded by African-Americans themselves. Antioch technically stands as the oldest black church started by African-Americans in the county, but Mount Pleasant is technically the first church in DeKalb County that served an all-black congregation. Either way, both churches were highly valued and important in the black communities they served.
Even before the start of the Civil War, enslaved peoples expressed interest in worshipping in their own churches. Prior to the Civil War, most slaves and their owners in DeKalb attended Indian Creek Baptist Church. That practice changed for the slaves owned by Joseph Walker, former deacon of Indian Creek and slave owner. As the story goes, Walker had observed slaves on his plantation worshipping and misinterpreted their freedom of expression as a display of “half-heathenism”. Walker’s misunderstanding lead to the creation of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.
In 1849, Walker erected a church on three acres of his plantation and named it Mount Pleasant after his ancestral home in South Carolina. A problem arose when construction was complete when, for reasons unknown or lost to history, no black man would take over the pulpit. The absence of a pastor resulted in Walker preaching at the church and creating a temporary seminary. He taught the enslaved men reading, writing, and theology for five years–all of which was illegal during the time. Eventually, Walker ordained a pastor for the church and turned over the services to the members. In later years when a burial space was needed, Walker deeded a plot of land for the church to use as a cemetery. In 1869, Joseph Walker deeded the church lands to the Deacons of Mount Pleasant and their successors. The deed came with the stipulation that if the church were to move or become extinct, the land would revert to Mr. Walker’s heirs. The deed of 1869 stood until 1990 when Mr. Walker’s great-great grandson, Robert Walker Sr., signed a quitclaim deed releasing the right of reversion to the church.
Since its construction in 1849, Mount Pleasant was rebuilt three times. The church tore down the first building, and the second building caught on fire when lightning hit a pear tree near the church. In 1952, the congregation erected the present building under Rev. M. M. McGuire.
The 1990s saw a rapidly changing landscape in DeKalb, and brought the effects of urban construction to the church. Under Rev. Ron Cook, Mount Pleasant negotiated rail lines and land use with MARTA from the late 1980s into the 1990s since some of the rail lines were laid on 1.7 acres of the church’s land. After six years of haggling over the land, Rev. Cook stated that the church wanted to get back to the “…business of saving souls”. Church officials asked for payment for the land used and for the construction of a sound barrier between the rail line and the church. Despite pressures from urbanization, Mount Pleasant continues to operate in its original location and continues to preserve its legacy.
By Sylvia Marshall