In honor of Black History Month, let’s take a look at the story of Sardis Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Kennesaw.
The 1860 federal census listed exactly 240 enslaved persons in Big Shanty, compared with 719 white residents. The youngest enslaved person listed was 1 month old, and the oldest was 60. Several were listed as “fugitives from the state.”
The 1870 census listed 116 African American residents living in the Kennesaw district. (There also were fewer white residents listed than in 1860.) Their occupations included cooks, housekeepers, farmers, railroad workers, a blacksmith and a minister. One 13-year-old was listed as attending school, something that would not have been possible less than a decade before.
Kennesaw obviously had a thriving Black community after the Civil War. In 1880, members of the community purchased land from Gaspard T. Carrie, next to the railroad tracks, for use as a new church building. The men were deacons Jack Talley, Sam Bostick and Alexander James Tanner. A small frame church was erected, and the new church opened that year. It was named Sardis Baptist Church. The first preacher of the church was the Rev. W. F. Strickland, and he was assisted by Professor B.J. Graves.
The original church building was located behind the present structure on South Main Street, across from Sardis Street, and it was painted white and blue. It was next to a large oak tree, which is still thriving on the church grounds. At an unknown date, a schoolhouse was added to the property, which served Kennesaw’s Black community. Across the street was Grant Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and Triumph Holiness Church. Of the three churches that sat in downtown Kennesaw’s Black community, Sardis is the only congregation that remains.
Baptisms for Sardis were held at King’s Wigwam, a resort owned by the Rev. Henry McNeal Turner, which sat near the present-day quarry on McCollum Parkway. Turner was not connected to Sardis, but he did help to found Mt. Zion AME on Wade Green Road.
In 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression, the original church building burned. The fire was caused by a faulty stove. The church Bible, several pews and an organ were among the items recovered from the fire. Community members helped to build a new structure by donating materials and labor. A church deacon donated oak trees that were cut for free by local businessman J.G. Lewis. The nails were salvaged from the previous building, and a carpenter offered his services free to build the structure.
The church soon was ready for services, but the finishing touches would not be added until 1945. This structure was used until 1973, when the current building was built. In 1996, the fellowship hall behind it was added.
The history of Sardis Missionary Baptist Church can be found all around it, quite literally. The block where Sardis sits is home to three African American cemeteries. The cemetery to the right of Sardis, along the railroad tracks, is the church cemetery. Behind the church is a second cemetery, owned for many years by Mayor Luther Chalker. Across from the Enclave at Depot Park is a third cemetery, believed to be connected to Grant Chapel AME. Each of these cemeteries includes gravestones made by Eldren Bailey, an African American artist from Atlanta. The cornerstones for both the 1930s structure and the current sanctuary can be found on the church façade. Near the cornerstones is the bell from the church schoolhouse.
Sardis Missionary Baptist Church has looked over Kennesaw from atop its hill for more than 140 years. In 2020, the church compiled a history of the congregation, which was an invaluable help in the writing of this article. Amid the changes that have taken place in Kennesaw, Sardis has remained a touchstone of our city’s African American community.
– Andrew Bramlett is vice president of the Kennesaw Historical Society and an honorary member of the Kennesaw Cemetery Preservation Commission.