The Legacy of Jerusalem Second Baptist Church
Fifty years ago, divine intervention was at play on the evening of Sunday, August 12, 1973. In that moment, the roof of Jerusalem Second Baptist Church collapsed less than hour before its 7 P.M. service. The church had stood on the northwest corner of Hill and Buckeye Streets for over a century and was Urbana’s second oldest African American congregation. Herbert and Carolyn Bowser resided nearby at 433 Buckeye Street in 1973. The couple had been visiting with Frederick and Carolyn Scott on the Bowser’s front porch that summer night when they heard a loud noise come from within the church. They rushed to the building and tried to enter, but found the door jammed. Moments later the roof collapsed into the sanctuary. A clock later found in the rubble showed it had stopped at 6:03 P.M. The historic building would be no more, and the site would remain a vacant lot for years to come. The congregation of Jerusalem Second Baptist found a temporary home nearby with the Swedenborgians, or the New Church, on the corner of South Main and West Reynolds Street. Second Baptist members would utilize that space for several years until their new location was established on South High Street.
Jerusalem Second Baptist originally grew out of local congregations being segregated. The church was established in 1846 through the leadership of Rev. Samuel Jones and several other early Urbana African American families such as the Clarks, Morses, Chavers, and Rectors to name a few. Initially, the group met in private homes or open groves in the countryside. The congregation would eventually acquire a small frame building on the southeastern corner of Monument Square for $100 and move it to the southern end of the city in what would become known as “Gooseville”. That structure would serve as the church for Second Baptist for a decade, before the members acquired the lot on the corner of Hill and Buckeye Streets. It would be there the men and women of Jerusalem Second Baptist Church literally constructed the building with their bare hands. The men fired the bricks that would be used for the church walls while the women prepared meals for the men who worked the kilns. The church was dedicated in August of 1869 with Baptist dignitaries from around Ohio on hand for the occasion. Urbana’s black population was increasing with migration from the South following the Civil War that drew African Americans north to be closer to family and better economic opportunities. The congregation would also become associated with some of the most prominent black members of the Urbana community including Professor E.W. B. Curry who served as the President and Founder of the black technical trade school in Urbana known as the Curry Institute. Jerusalem Second Baptist’s membership continued to grow, and they hosted a variety of programming open to all including an elaborate celebration honoring the life of Frederick Douglas and other moments in local and U.S. History viewed as milestones in equality.
In the late 19th century, the congregation had a public split with one of its pastors. Rev. James Allen Viney had only been in the pulpit at Jerusalem Second Baptist for little over a year when he publicly resigned after causing a negative stir within part of the congregation. Viney called on young men to be more industrious, better relations with white citizens, and touted a strong defense of women and home at all costs. Rev. Viney’s sermon’s timing was off though as it came shortly after the lynching of “Click” Mitchell on the lawn of the Champaign County Courthouse in June of 1897. The National Guard was called out and members of the mob were killed when shots were fired into the chaotic scene The case cast a dark shadow of mistrust and anger in Urbana and thrust the community into the national spotlight for what was the murder of an innocent man at the hands of the mob. Rev. Viney’s message raised eyebrows in Urbana who interpreted part of his sermon to condone mob violence when necessary. Many citizens in Urbana, both black and white, were appalled such vigilante violence had taken place on its streets with some of the participants traveling for miles to descend upon the city. The consensus among the public felt such violence should never had taken place, but local and state officials at the time lost control of the situation and were complicit in allowing the actions to unfold that would lead to Mitchell’s death. Some of Viney’s own congregation would encourage his departure from Second Baptist, but he remained a committed supporter for the church and the community following his move to Columbus. Even after Viney took his leave from the city, he advocated for a black Baptist College to be established in Urbana.
Following World War II, a new pastor arrived at Jerusalem Second Baptist Church with Rev. Andrew J. Ruffin. An Alabama native, Ruffin was one of 14 children. He studied at Morehouse College and was a veteran of World War I. He was a well-respected clergy member in the city and beyond serving the Urbana and larger Baptist community in a variety of local, state, and national roles. He grew Jerusalem Second Baptist Church to new heights but retired in the aftermath of the building’s roof collapse completing 26 years of service. Reverend Ruffin would pass away in 1979 and his wife Jenny in 2015. Both are buried in Oak Dale Cemetery in Urbana.