Summer Issue 2022

Stories of Modern-Day Firsts in the Black Church: The First Four Women Reverends at State Street Baptist Church Part II

By Lamont Jack Pearley

The first installment of this two-part series, which can be found here, introduces listeners to James and Marilyn Hockersmith. The Hockersmiths share stories about their upbringing in the Baptist church tradition, leading Ms. Marilyn to describe how she joined Reverend Freddie Brown and the State Street Baptist Church ministry team as a licensed reverend. Reverend Brown was the former head pastor of SSBC who faced pushback from the Baptist District as a result of recognizing and licensing women preachers.

The Hockersmiths are followed by Reverend Nerica Bowie, who recounts her journey of being called to preach. Reverend Bowie, who hails from Louisiana, ultimately made a home in Bowling Green and faced multiple challenges as she answered her ecclesiastical calling.

The first installment ends with the introduction of Reverend Tammra Turner, who briefly shares her experience of being the fourth and final woman reverend licensed by Reverend Brown.

Photograph courtesy of State Street Baptist Church

The second installment of Stories of Modern-Day Firsts in the Black Church: The First Four Women Reverends at State Street Baptist Church consists of four segments. Husband-and-wife ministry team Pastor James and Reverend Tammra Turner of Turner Ministries, along with Reverend Nerica Bowie, continue to discuss memorable “firsts.”

Reverend Tammra narrates in deeper detail her call to ministry and the responses she received from churches, friends, and congregants, which led to her mentorship from Reverend Freddie Brown. This mentorship culminated in Tammra’s membership to State Street Baptist Church. Before Reverend Tammra joined SSBC, she attended services with her husband, James, at 11th Street Church, where he was pastoring. The head pastor at 11th did not recognize women in the pulpit. After weeks of prayer and discussion, Pastor James spoke with Reverend Brown. Soon afterward, Reverend Tammra attended a service at State Street, then met with her husband after both services finished. In this installment, she articulates the story at-length.

After the initial interview, Reverend Tammra suggested an interview with her husband. Documenting the experience narrated by a “First” spouse is insightful, considering Pastor James had a significant position in a congregation that opposed his spouse’s call to minister.

All participants in both installments recount experiences growing up in the Black church. Listeners are offered a first-hand account of how three women and one head revered from an historic church work tirelessly to challenge, and change, a longstanding spiritual tradition. As Reverend Tammra and Nerica relay their personal journeys and the revolutionary stance of Reverend Freddie Brown, listeners will also hear the story of Pastor James’ call to ministry along with his decision to assist his wife in her achieving her life’s purpose.

Where the Spirit of the Lord Is, There Is Freedom!

In the first segment, Reverend Tammra Turner and Reverend Nerica Bowie discuss how women pastors have been oppressed. These two women stand on their belief in God, biblical text, and forgiveness prerequisites to honor the call of ministry.


State Street Baptist Church Part II

Evolving Traditions

In this section, Pastor James Turner charts the evolution of the church from its conservative beginnings to its less restrictive, more contemporary iterations.

Reverend Tammra Turner deconstructs her process of switching from Methodist and Apostolic denominations to Baptist churches, where women do not serve in positions of authority.


State Street Baptist Church Part II

"Go into all the world..."

Pastor James Turner discusses his story of being called to lead in the ministry. He draws connections between his service and the symbolism of the Eastern Star.

Turner also explains the tradition of the “Mother Church” in the community and how State Street Baptist Church, to him, is considered the Mother Church. Pastor James reflects on how the respected Reverend Freddie Brown could be contextualized as the head of the Mother Church.


State Street Baptist Church Part II

Hoopin' Hollerin' to Edification

This segment introduces various preaching styles as they differ across generations, denominations, and sometimes locations. Finally, the Turners expound upon the roles of the husband and wife, as both hold significant positions in teaching the gospel.


State Street Baptist Church Part II

Information regarding song titles, performers, and relevant subject headings for each segment may be found here.

Lamont Jack Pearley is an applied folklorist and African American traditional music historian and practitioner enrolled at Western Kentucky University. Pearley is a broadcast major with a minor in African American studies and folk studies. He is the African American Studies Ambassador, hosts a weekly segment, "The African American Folklorist," on NPR/WKU Public Radio, and is the editor of the African American Folklorist Newspaper. Pearley was inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame as a Great Blues Historian and TV/Radio Producer in 2017 and as a Great Blues Artist in 2018.