On a humid, sticky July day in 1970, Second Missionary Baptist Church brimmed with young people who had gathered for a funeral. Church member Blondell Kelly sat in the second red velvet pew, her sister by her side, when she says she felt the Holy Spirit move her.
A 16-year-old Kelly looked ahead at the choir stand. The empty baptistry lay beneath. Four years earlier, it was filled with water, and as the pastor dipped Kelly in it, she was introduced to the Holy Spirit. Years later, Kelly would stand at the front of the same church to say, “I do,” and in the same place, she would eventually baptize her children.
But on that hot July day, she says she felt the Holy Spirit as the summer sun glinted through the muted stained glass windows.
In a casket up front lay the body of Birch Stemmons, Kelly’s brother. An American flag decorated its top. Stemmons died in the Vietnam War. He had just started his college career when he was drafted, eventually earning the rank of U.S. Army Sergeant. He was 21.
In moments like these, times of joy and sorrow, Kelly feels that God and the black community at Second Missionary Baptist Church have supported her and her family. As long as she can remember, the church has provided her spiritual home and sanctuary.
One hundred and fifty years ago, just before Academic Hall burned, when horses and buggies filled the streets and Providence Road was called Third Street, before the paved streets of Broadway laid privy to marches in the name of justice, before apartment complexes and parking garages made up the skyline, Second Missionary Baptist Church became a part of Columbia.
From the Civil War to civil rights, Second Baptist has been a refuge and cornerstone in the lives of black locals for more than a century. The congregation and black community have gathered, marched, rallied, protested and prayed in the face of discrimination and injustice for decades. One of the first primarily black congregations in Columbia, the church celebrates its 150th anniversary this July. The building’s stained glass, etched with the names of some of the founders, has witnessed history both inside the church walls and outside on the streets of downtown.
The church’s history intertwines with the city’s. Contributions of the black community shaped 19th and 20th century Columbia as the city’s population grew along with that of the congregation of Second Baptist. Although the place of worship has changed through the years, the church’s sense of community was ever-present.
The Second Missionary Baptist Church that still stands today was built in 1894, but the church’s roots stretch back to emancipation. The Rev. Clyde Ruffin, who has led as pastor for 13 years with his warm laugh and hearty manner, leans on the church’s rich history as an indicator of vision.
“Understanding our history can reveal a divine purpose,” Ruffin says. His deep, powerful voice easily carries to the final pew of the church. “What the founders believed and the purpose for planting a church here can be seen as orchestrated by God’s will and an indicator of the direction to follow.”
But as any Sunday regular would tell you, a church means more than its walls and what they hold. People make up a church, not bricks. No official building is needed to worship the Lord and feel community among believers.
At Second Baptist, church means family, a family who stands by you when the worst happens. Church means putting on your Sunday best, serving as an usher at worship service or heading up the finance committee on Monday nights. Church is taking what your God has blessed you with and blessing the community in return. It’s strong and constant, a true sanctuary sustained through the ages.
In 1865, a handful of free people of color, some former slaves, called a meeting of Columbia’s black community on a warm summer night. They wanted to use their freedom to build a church.
Before emancipation that year, First Baptist Church had allowed slaves to sit in on services, but the black community lacked a church of its own. The meeting’s agenda: fundraising to establish the African Union Church, which would combine black members of the local Baptist and Methodist Episcopal congregations. Shortly after, the group purchased Lot 309 on the southeast corner of Third and Ash streets, a corner now home to cash advances and car rentals. Construction was successful, but conflict arose, and the Methodists backed out of the agreement.
After the Rev. James Hudson and his small collective of founders organized the church with the Baptist Home Mission Board, the group met in the home of John Batiste Lange Sr. The congregation outgrew Lange’s home, so the group was finally able to move weekly services to the church on Lot 309 and alternated Sundays with the Methodist congregation that also gathered there.
But the black Baptist worship gatherings continued to grow, necessitating another move to a building to truly call their own in 1873. Two local black congregations supported the move financially and helped the group buy a building on Fifth Street between Broadway and Cherry Street. The Baptist church members then established their new home as Northwestern Baptist Church.
A handful of black Columbia residents found success by the mid-to-late 1870s. Specifically, Lange Sr. in business and John William “Blind” Boone in music.
Although slavery had been outlawed in Missouri, Lange’s wife and children still served as slaves for the wife of MU President James Shannon. Lange, however, was free. By 1870, he helped found the city’s black business district, the Sharp End, by opening a butcher shop.
Boone rose to prominence in the late 1800s as a ragtime pianist. He was raised by his mother, Rachel, in Warrensburg and developed cerebral meningitis as an infant. The treatment of the fatal disease caused his blindness. Despite his disability, he developed a prodigious talent. John Lange Jr., a slender man with enormous sideburns, saw the boy’s musical potential and brought him to Columbia for training. At 15, Boone played his first Columbia concert at Second Baptist.
Lange Jr. and Boone toured the country under the bill “Merit, Not Sympathy Wins,” reflecting the mindset that Boone’s talents were more notable than his disability. In 1889, Boone married Lange Jr.’s youngest sister, Eugenia, and they purchased a house on Fourth Street that still stands today. The John William “Blind” Boone Heritage Foundation in conjunction with Ruffin is working to restore the house. The landmark will reopen to the public this September after 16 years of preservation and renovation.
As Boone’s success grew, so did the Second Baptist congregation, and in 1884, when it had outgrown its building again, Lange Jr. and Boone stepped in. Lange Jr. donated a parcel of land to the church at Fourth Street and Broadway — the land Second Missionary Baptist Church still calls home. And Boone, who wasn’t a church member but whose home neighbored the plot, loaned $3,000 for the building’s construction.
The Masonic Lodge laid the cornerstone 10 years later, and the red brick edifice took the name of Broadway Baptist Church. Although the building is the same, Ruffin says no one knows why or when the congregation changed the name to Second Missionary Baptist Church.
Forty years after the church’s founding, on the night of April 28, 1923, 50 men gathered at the jail on Eighth and Walnut streets, approached the sheriffs on duty and told them they wanted to take a black man named James T. Scott. When the sheriffs refused, the men regrouped an hour later with sledgehammers. According to the Missouri Historical Society, by 12:30 a.m., a crowd of a thousand onlookers gathered and continued to grow while the policemen stood by.
A Lincoln Institute graduate and WWI veteran, 35-year-old Scott was a janitor at MU. The Rev. J.L. Caston officiated Scott’s wedding to his wife, Gertrude, at Second Baptist in 1921. They attended service regularly.
Columbia officials said Scott had assaulted a young white girl, which shocked church members due to his involvement in the Second Baptist community.
Regina Almstedt, 14, was attacked by a black man on April 20. A hysteric white community badgered the local officials to capture the attacker quickly. One week later, an anonymous witness named Scott as the perpetrator. But Scott was never proven guilty.
Arguably, Scott was targeted because he threatened white supremacy. He made a white man’s wage of $65 a month and bought a brand new Hupmobile car that not even white Columbia residents owned. Scott symbolized the black economic success that threatened white prestige.
When Caston heard of the allegations against Scott, he called on George L. Vaughn, a St. Louis attorney and NAACP representative, who then contacted Gov. Arthur Hyde and requested the National Guard disperse the mob immediately. He waited for the National Guard to come, but the local chapter never arrived.
At the jail, the men used an acetylene torch to loosen the hinges and lock on the cell. They captured Scott and led him, noose around his neck, down Seventh Street to Cherry and down Sixth Street to Stewart Road.
Only hours before Scott should have been climbing the steps of the red brick church building for Sunday service, he was forced instead to climb the rungs of the Stewart Bridge. There, with the deafening chants of more than a thousand screaming voices in the background, they pushed him from the bridge.
In the late 1950s, before Columbia’s black community went out to break down segregation in restaurants and other establishments, members assembled at the church.
Famed civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said the struggle for civil rights is a spiritual battle. Similarly, Ruffin, Second Baptist’s current leader, sees a moral and spiritual imperative that drives the faith community to respond and takes that mandate seriously.
In 1976, former reverend at Second Baptist Jewell Jones pulled church member Mary Ratliff aside after service and told her the work she was doing for equality was like that of the NAACP. He said she should start an NAACP chapter in Columbia. Ratliff politely declined, but Jones kept pushing, Sunday after Sunday.
After finally agreeing to start a branch, Ratliff had 50 members, the number required to install a chapter, standing alongside her in less than two weeks.
She became NAACP president of the city’s chapter later that year. In 1991, Ratliff ran and won the seat for state NAACP president. Although Ratliff stepped down from her position earlier this year, she continues to be diligent in tearing down the vestiges of discrimination.
The church’s red brick frame has played host to monthly NAACP meetings for years. It stood watch as crowds marched and gathered in the name of civil rights and even before that, provided refuge in the era of Jim Crow. The church has served as a meeting place in crises since the Civil Rights era, its historic stained-glass windows subtly glowing late into the night.
“Second Baptist has been a source of support for race relations in the community,” Ratliff says. “If they want to get involved, they know to come to Second Baptist.”
On August 9, 2014, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson. His body lay in the street for hours. The event left the black community enraged and reeling.
In the aftermath, Second Baptist served as a meeting place to convene, discuss and pray. Ratliff says she and the NAACP held several meetings at the church during the events in Ferguson. On the night of the grand jury’s decision about whether to charge Wilson, she told everyone to meet at the church at 5 p.m. — no matter what would happen.
That night, a silent group circled in the fellowship hall following the 8:24 p.m. announcement that Darren Wilson had not been indicted. Four and a half minutes of silence, honoring Brown’s life, gave the tears and heavy hearts a small window of time to mourn the loss of another black life and a decision that found no one culpable.
The next day, they marched. The group left from the front stoop of Second Baptist Church and stopped at the Boone County Courthouse for a rally.
During a particularly mild summer in 1985, similar circumstances brought a grieving black community to Second Baptist. Nineteen-year-old Kimberly Linzie died after three Columbia police officers opened fire while in pursuit of her. They believed she had stolen a car. Second Baptist organized a march of 250 people in protest and mourning as a nonviolent response.
“The church is a gathering place for crisis,” Ruffin says. “Not every church can say that. It’s a unique calling.”
"Understanding our history can reveal a divine purpose."
— The Rev. Clyde Ruffin
Outside of Second Baptist’s walls, Blondell Kelly felt the support of more than just the Holy Spirit. Along with her brothers and sisters, Kelly attended Frederick Douglass High School, founded in 1898 for the education of black children. As the baby of the family, Kelly started school after the start of integration.
She remembers being called names and racial slurs even in primary school. In junior high, the taunting got worse. The black students from Douglass didn’t think her skin was black enough, and the white students didn’t think of her as white enough. Kelly says it was God and the community at Second Baptist that sustained her and got her through.
Mary Ratliff remembers a time, not long ago, when the church helped her, too. She pulls out the bright-red softcover church directory. With her dark cherry-red nails, she points out key church members and her husband, Lonnie. He served Second Baptist as a deacon and a chairman of the finance and budget committee until his death last May.
Closing the book, Ratliff says one of the times her church family really showed up was when Lonnie fell ill.
The Ratliffs never missed a Sunday service. But in February 2015, a bad stomachache landed Lonnie in the emergency room. After scanning him and reading the results, the doctors entered the room and announced Lonnie had pancreatic cancer. He saw the news upset his wife and wanted to make sure she was all right and taken care of.
The community at Second Baptist watched over them both. Ratliff and Lonnie spent their time between the hospital and home. Throughout that period, Ratliff says at least three people from Second Baptist were always present, whether it was just for a visit or to provide meals. So many people visited Lonnie that the hospital offered to move him to a bigger room. When he died in May, church members came to the Ratliff's home to provide comfort and support.
Deacon Larry Monroe, who joined Second Missionary Baptist Church in 1945 at the age of 7, says the church made the community, and in turn, the community became the church. He recalls that oftentimes, his schoolteacher was also his Sunday School teacher, and because of this, children were held accountable for their behavior every day of the week.
Ratliff agrees that the members of Second Baptist were invested in the kids of the congregation. So invested, in fact, that Ratliff remembers Kelly’s father, Birch Stemmons Sr., buying a big yellow school bus and driving around town to pick up kids and taking them to Sunday School.
The Stemmons family purchased the bus with some of the money they received after their son’s death. Getting kids to Sunday School to learn about Jesus was a priority for Kelly’s parents.
“Second Baptist has been a supporting pillar of the community as long as I can remember,” Monroe says. Ratliff and Kelly echo this nearly to the word.
A few blocks from the church, perched on a hill behind Lucky’s Market, sits the 35-acre Columbia Cemetery. Mostly white people lie there, but a small section exists for black people. Boone and Lange Jr. are buried there side-by-side.
In the stillness of the cemetery, Ruffin stood looking at these historic black figures’ graves when he realized James T. Scott must be buried there, too. Previously unmarked, Scott’s grave is now almost unnoticeable. A past superintendent placed a small concrete slab at the place he suspected Scott lay. Ruffin knew Scott needed a headstone.
This realization in 2011 provided an opportunity for remembrance and closure. Ruffin gathered the Second Baptist congregation as well as community volunteers and descendants of those involved in the lynching to form the James T. Scott Monument Committee. After months of research and fundraising, the group raised enough money to purchase the headstone.
In celebration and dedication, the community and the congregation gathered at Second Baptist to remember Scott. Descendants of Caston, the church’s leader at the time of the lynching, and Regina Almstedt, the young girl who was assaulted, spoke. They said their relatives had never disclosed the horrific events that had taken place that night in April 1923, let alone reveal that they were directly involved in them.
The crowd of a few hundred filed out of the church and made its way to the cemetery, not far from where the lynching occurred 88 years before. They walked in celebration to the beat of drums and melodic jazz horn.
A blue-gray granite monument marks the grassy spot where Scott lies. Prominently etched in the front of the memorial headstone is Scott’s genealogy. The back pays homage to the injustice he faced when he was lynched from the Stewart Bridge at about 1:40 a.m. on April 29, 1923.
To Ruffin, leading a church steeped in such rich racial history means looking both forward and back — like the painting of a SanKofa bird that hangs in his office at Second Baptist. SanKofa is a Ghanaian word that translates to, “It is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.” The word is symbolized by a bird with its feet facing forward and head turned back with an egg in its mouth.
SanKofa represents the need to acknowledge the past but continue moving forward. In that way, Ruffin leads Second Missionary Baptist Church in the spirit of the Ghanaian symbol: He and the congregation move forward, and their eyes glance back at 150 years of church history rich with community, protest and prayer.