Earlier this month, Reverend Amos C. Brown celebrated his 40th anniversary as the leader of Third Baptist Church in the Fillmore. The ceremony was a spectacle of gospel music and speeches from political powerhouses, including Bill Clinton, Willie Brown, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jerry Brown, and Gavin Newsom.
It might not be long before Third Baptist will have further cause for celebration. On Aug. 16, the Historic Preservation Commission unanimously voted to recommend landmark designation to the Board of Supervisors, and on Sept. 5, the Board passed a resolution to granting it. According to the S.F. Planning Code, if the status is approved, no permit to “construct, alter, or demolish any structure or other feature” on the site shall be awarded by the city.
“This church is obviously more than just a building,” Rev. Brown says. “It has been a haven, a shrine, for persons who embrace what I call a liberating gospel for all people. Third Baptist was founded not as just a place to come together and deal with one’s personal development and salvation, and think of going to heaven. The church began out of struggle.”
Third Baptist was founded in 1852 under the name The First Colored Baptist Church of San Francisco. It was the first Black Baptist congregation west of the Rockies, and it continued to be the only Black Baptist church in town until the 1940s.
The first location was on Grant Avenue — called Dupont Street at the time — between Filbert and Greenwich streets. The inaugural congregation consisted of a group of Black Baptists who were forced to sit in the balcony at the mostly-white First Baptist Church. They left that parish in order to establish their own, more inclusive, place of worship.
After moving several times across the city, Third Baptist found a permanent home on the corner of Pierce and McAllister streets in 1952. Prior to Brown’s 1976 arrival at Third Baptist, the church was helmed by civil rights leader Rev. Douglas Haynes, Sr., who, along with his own contributions to the struggle for racial equality in the 20th century, organized visits by other historic figures, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Brown continues the legacy, with his own impressive history as a spiritual and civil-rights leader. After Emmett Till was murdered in 1955, Brown organized the first NAACP Youth Council in Mississippi (when he only was 14 years old). He was one of only eight people who took a class King offered in 1962, and led numerous protests against racist institutions, including the First Baptist Church in the southeast United States. He was a member of the Freedom Riders, and he’s responsible for a long list of programs in San Francisco aimed at serving the city’s marginalized populations. He’s currently the President of the San Francisco NAACP.
Sup. London Breed, who was instrumental in bringing the ordinance in front of the Board this month, grew up near the Third Baptist — and she’s a member of the congregation.
“In San Francisco, we need to make sure that people remember that we’re still here, and we still matter,” Breed says. “And as those who aren’t as vocal in the new generation of the African-American community begin to emerge, we want to make sure that they know the history, that others know the history of what happened in the Fillmore and how significant Third Baptist is and why.”
After the Sept. 5 vote of approval, the nomination was sent to the Land Use and Transportation Committee. If the Board once again approves the designation, and Mayor Ed Lee signs it, Third Baptist Church will officially become a historic landmark in San Francisco.