Summer Issue 2021

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

By Lamont Jack Pearley


Kentucky Folklife Digital Mag

For centuries, the Black Church has been a staple of the Black community and an incubator of justice, freedom, vital records, and daily necessities for both families and individuals. Having grown up in the Pentecostal church, I witnessed the traditions, values, and rituals that deeply influenced members of the congregation and the church organization as a whole. As folklorists, we understand that religious beliefs and expressions are dynamic. Traditions that have been passed down, formally and informally, for generations are certainly not spared from change.

In 1818, Pastor John Keel of Providence Knob Church in Warren County, Kentucky, was dismissed from his position with instructions to establish the Baptist Church of Bowling Green, which was later renamed to First Baptist Church of Bowling Green. By 1835, African Americans were utilizing the church for weekly service meetings. Less than a decade later, in 1844, a deed transfer to John Burnam, a deacon at First Baptist, initiated the African Baptist Church, which ultimately became State Street Baptist Church. With a history of “firsts,” I set out to interview members of State Street Baptist to discover whether or not any long standing traditions are still prevalent today. Not surprisingly, there are.

This podcast tells the “Amazing Stories of Modern Day Firsts in the Black Church” as they relate to State Street Baptist Church. Reverend Freddie Brown, State Street’s last head reverend, was the first spiritual authority within the Kentucky Baptist church to ordain, license, and certify women reverends, many of whom already held prominent positions within the clergy. This is the story of these women, what they endured, and how the traditions of the Black Church vary throughout different denominations and regions. 

In this first installment of the series, I speak with Mr. James Hockersmith, Elder Marilyn Whitlock Hockersmith, Reverend Erica Bowie, and Reverend Tammra Turner, all active State Street Baptist Church members.

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.