Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Located along Ingra Street, Greater Friendship Baptist Church is an unassuming concrete block building, passed by thousands a day without a second glance. But unknown to most, Greater Friendship is a notable checkpoint in Alaska and civil rights history, nestled right in the heart of Anchorage. And at its June 28 service, Greater Friendship celebrates its 70th year!
The history of Greater Friendship is inseparable from the rise of Anchorage’s black community. Before World War II, Anchorage’s black population was small. In 1940, future club owner Zelmer Lawrence arrived and found a black community of only eight to 12 individuals. Mainly through word of mouth, black workers in the Lower 48 heard of good work and higher pay in Alaska.
Vanee Robinson, a charter Greater Friendship member, was a typical member of this Great Migration. The Robinsons moved from Texas to Vancouver, Washington, where she and her husband Jacob worked at a shipyard. After the war ended and work dried up, the Robinsons followed rumors of opportunities to Alaska. Vanee later told the Anchorage Daily News, “I was appalled. I thought Alaska was just ice and snow and igloos, that we’d all freeze to death.”
By the early 1950s, as many as 5,000 African Americans lived in and around the city. Due to pervasive housing discrimination, most settled in Eastchester Flats, a low-lying stretch of land along Chester Creek, south of 15th Avenue and east of Ingra Street in modern-day Fairview. Before 1954, all of what is now Fairview was officially named Eastchester. And the Flats of Eastchester, outside city limits and on less desirable land, was one of the only areas within the Anchorage Bowl where black people were legally and socially allowed to live.
Cleared by urban renewal in the late 1960s, the Flats was a prosperous community with a beauty parlor, grocers, cafes, hotel, launderers and real estate offices. Resident Joe Jackson proudly noted, “we were a small city within our own selves.” The Flats was also Anchorage’s redlight district. Lawrence recalled, “you could go to the Flats and find things you couldn’t find any other place in the state.”
But the Flats didn’t have a church. While not within the Flats, Greater Friendship is located where it was allowed and needed to be. A short walk from the Flats, the church serviced the nearby black community. As one church member and Eastchester resident noted, “the church was where people went who weren’t partying and drinking. That was their social community.”
The congregation began with a revival led by the Reverend Charles Kennedy, followed by meetings and worship at First Baptist Church, itself founded in 1943 by a group of soldiers. Greater Friendship was founded on June 22, 1951, the first black church in Alaska. All subsequent black churches in Alaska either directly, as with Shiloh Missionary Baptist in 1952, or indirectly followed from Greater Friendship. “Even though there are larger churches, Greater Friendship is still like a pillar or foundation of all the black churches in Anchorage,” said one church member.
Greater Friendship became the first black church to affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Since the 1890s, the SBC has been the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and second-largest Christian denomination after the Catholic Church. Southern Baptists split from Northern Baptists in 1845 over a desire to allow missionaries to own slaves. Before and during the Civil War, the SBC endorsed secession and described the war as “just and necessary.”
SBC ministers of the later 19th century also advocated a belief in the Curse of Ham, which used Noah’s curse upon Canaan to explain and justify darker skin, slavery and white superiority. In 1891, the SBC Home Mission Board stated that Baptist evangelism should encourage black people to accept a “subordinate place” in society that would “settle this race question forever.”
With a unanimous vote by the state convention, Greater Friendship joined the SBC in 1951. As terrible as the SBC’s history of discrimination is, the acceptance of Greater Friendship and Community Baptist came three years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
For change to happen, someone has to be first—the first to raise their voice, the first to fight, the first to cross previously barred lines. Then, there can be a second. Then there can be a flood. And Greater Friendship was the first of what is now more than 4,000 primarily black churches affiliated with the SBC.
Within five weeks, the original congregation of 32 believers grew to more than a 100. In 1952, the church purchased the current lot at 13th Avenue and Ingra Street, then called East H Street, in Fairview.
Around the same size as the current church, the first wooden church building included a 50-by-72-foot sanctuary that could hold 500 worshippers. After the concrete basement was installed, the congregation met there while the structure above was completed. Rev. Kennedy, the founding pastor, dedicated the finished church in October 1953. This building subsequently burned down, but the congregation survived, and by 1955, the current church building opened. Some construction materials for the new Greater Friendship were taken from the remains of First Baptist, which had burned down in 1953.
Through the decades, the church has survived mortgages, dwindling attendance, fires and a changing community. From late 1976 through late 1977, the church structure was extensively remodeled, including moving the main entrance from the south facade to its current location at the southeast corner. In recent years, the church has thrived. Attendance has risen, and the church has modernized, including screens for lyrics and scriptures. In 2019, Greater Friendship Baptist Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, recognition for its position in history.
Greater Friendship is not only a black church. When a stranger enters, they must endure a loving gantlet of hugs and handshakes on their way to a seat. “We’re going to be the most diverse church ever in Alaska,” says Pastor Michael Bunton in a 2017 interview. “Not the first black church, but the most diverse church is my vision.”
Anderson, George C. “Alaska Frontier…Attracts Negro Pioneers.” Color, April 1953.
“Baptist Church Celebrates 31 Years.” Anchorage Daily News, June 19, 1982.
Baptist Features. Baptist Press, August 21, 1965, 5.
Barcus, Gwen. “Greater Friendship Flourishes in Fairview.” Anchorage Daily News, June 16, 1984, EE1, EE9.
Bunton, Michael A., interview by David Reamer, November 12, 2017, Anchorage, AK.
Bushnell, Sharon. “Vanee Robinson: Warming to Alaska.” Anchorage Daily News, February 17, 2002, D3.
Copeland, E. Luther The Southern Baptist Convention and the Judgment of History: The Taint of an Original Sin. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002.
Corley, Asta. “A Golden Opportunity For Ministry—Milestone: Greater Friendship Baptist Church Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary.” Anchorage Daily News, June 23, 2001, B5.
“Finish Work on New Church.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 10, 1953, 2.
Hunke, Naomi Ruth. I Have Planted Thee in This Land: The Story of the First 25 Years of Southern Baptist Missions in Alaska. Anchorage, AK: Alaska Baptist Convention, 1971.
Jackson, Joe, interview by Bruce Melzer, c. 1982-1983. Bruce Melzer Oral History Interviews, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.
Lawrence, Zelmer, interview by Bruce Melzer, c. 1982-1983. Bruce Melzer Oral History Interviews, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.
Lopes, Jerome, and Sharon Harris, interview by David Reamer, November 30, 2017, Anchorage, AK.
Willis, Alan Scot. All According to God’s Plan: Southern Baptist Missions and Race, 1945-1970. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2005.
Willoughby, Karen L. “Southern Baptist Racial Barriers Broke First in Alaska, California.” Baptist Press, February 14, 2003. Accessed February 3, 2018
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