It is a place well-named since the outset, as the entire community has reason to be thankful for its presence and contributions.
Sure, it is a place of worship originally founded by recently freed slaves while the Civil War was still raging, but it is the most visible of the so-called black churches (does God really care about skin color?) for far more than that.
It has long been a key force not only in religious instruction but also in the social, charitable and political life of Greater Rome as well — including, of course, the bringing of the black community to something nearer to full equality in all matters. That’s a task ongoing, of course, although great progress has been achieved as the result of the efforts of many both within and without the black community.
The church building itself — which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1985 by the way — has long anchored what is known as the Five Points area just off downtown Rome. That is so-called because, although barely noticeable today, five streets “corner” on it rather the four typically found at major intersections. Few streaming by take much note of West Ross Street, which is not directly controlled by the lights and is No. 5.
NOR, FOR that matter, do today many recall that this was once the “downtown” of a then-segregated black community which was a replica, in miniature, of what lower Broad Street remains in appearance. Only one brick building on a corner, some commemorative signage — and Thankful Missionary Baptist Church — remain as sentinels from that past.
Greater Rome has many, many black churches of varying sizes and contributions to the whole of the community, of course. Thankful is the most visible in many ways, including how many drive past it daily because of its central location. In that sense it may well be the most “seen” church of the many of all faiths that Greater Rome contains.
Nor, by the way, is Thankful the oldest congregation in the oldest building. There are actually several in Rome older and with a list of community contributions as great, including the dubious distinction of having been used as stables for Yankee horses during the Civil War.
In recent years, rather quietly, several members of the black community have been working to reconstruct and save/preserve various aspects of Greater Rome’s particularly rich past for what has long been its most prominent and sizeable minority community. They’ve even compiled enough for a small museum.
Few probably appreciate how very, very difficult this is to do. For one thing, to state the obvious, in days gone by not all that long ago the majority/governing population didn’t exactly pay a lot of attention to, or record, what was happening within the black community much in official/printed materials.
NONETHELESS, it is to be hoped that someday a book devoted to Thankful’s history — and particularly its long involvement in so many of the advances made by all of Rome —can be compiled with some accuracy. There is actually quite a growing collection of little-known historical accounts of this/that part of Rome or its past that have been created in recent years, including of the black community. Perhaps that has in part been sparked by this newspaper company’s own long-running annual Past Times magazine series. There is, frankly, no end to the interesting stories about this region that have yet to be told to those here today — and saved for those who will arrive on the morrow.
Some of the factual stuff from way, way back may never be possible to nail down. For example, the charming story/legend about how the church got its name (a member thankful for entering a new building after the old church, then known as Bush Harbor, burned down — twice) may miss the fact that there are actually two other Thankful Baptist black churches on historical site registers. One is in Tennessee and the other in Augusta, where it dates back even further to 1843.
Impossible to nail down, of course, but the shared name may have much to do with the shared faith and 1 Corinthians 15:57.
However, the true history of Thankful Missionary Baptist within the Rome community (heaven being another matter) surely lies in the many untold or unrecognized contributions of its congregants, past and present. They now are estimated to number 1,500.
NOT ONLY did the success of Thankful Baptist doubtless inspire many younger congregations to form but its success — and persistence against many past obstacles — has done much good, brought much positive change not only in civil rights, where it has long served as an organizational point, but in caring for neighbors with difficulties, with promoting civic/political involvement and all those many things other than praising God that churches do ... as a way to praise the Lord.
Upon the 200th anniversary of the founding of Thankful Baptist — and the 250th, the 300th and so forth — what will by then have been added to its list of accomplishments deserves to be better known, understood and appreciated by the whole of the community.
After all, as any pastor is sure to remind, whatever is accomplished is never in the name of the church but in Somebody Else’s.