Second Baptist Church at forefront of education values

Detroit, USA - At 78, William Washington is a living reminder of Second Baptist Church's rich educational history.

Washington, who has been a member of the downtown Detroit church since 1956, is a former principal at Cleveland Middle School on the city's east side. The retired educator is one of many who have fostered the tradition in the church, which built the city's first schoolhouse for black children and spawned the city's first black educator to teach an integrated class.

"The church had to fight its way out just to gain respect," said Washington, who now lives in Bloomfield Township. "There were some people in the congregation who were instrumental in making sure education was important. Black children weren't treated as equals in the schools, and in fact, that isn't something that goes way back.

"Second's role has been to be a catalyst or a starting point for blacks to gain independence or recognition in all fields, especially in education. We want to make sure our kids are getting the proper education."

The church's role in education is deeply rooted in African-American heritage, historians say. People learned how to read the Bible by moonlight. Phonics was taught by pronunciations of Kings in the Old Testament. Children and adults learned math by studying their past through the building of Egyptian pyramids. And Negro spirituals such as "Wade in the Water" provided the first maps for slaves seeking freedom.

But as those slaves migrated north, it was Second Baptist Church that became the institution where people could get formally educated. The church was founded in 1836. According to archives, Second Baptist Church established Detroit's first school for black children in 1839. The Rev. William Charles Monroe served as the school's first teacher.

Among his earliest students was Fannie Richards, who was hired by the Detroit Board of Education in 1865 to teach black children. Four years later, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in her favor allowing her to become the first black teacher to have an integrated class.

Decades later, the church's former historian, Nathaniel Leach, proved he was capable of teaching a foreign language by conducting his entire interview with administrators in French. Leach, who later became an assistant principal at the old Miller High School in Detroit's black bottom enclave, was one of the district's first black foreign language instructors.

"(Those) are separate events, but (are) reflective of the self-esteem of the African-American community and reflective of the awareness of the importance of education," said the Rev. Kevin Turman, the current pastor of the Greektown-based congregation whose membership, which once numbered in the thousands, is now about 750. About 200 attend services regularly.

"Second Baptist has played a role in the beginning of the process, both for students and educators, in the Detroit Public School system," Turman said. "(The church) continues to believe not only in the value of education, but I would emphasize public education."

Now, the church's role in education is poignant as ever. U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has tagged the Detroit Public Schools as the nation's worst. The city's graduation rate is lower than 30 percent.

Many churches have expanded their roles by starting charter schools. Among them are the Marvin L. Winans Academy for Performing Arts, out of Detroit-based Perfecting Church; Plymouth Educational Center, an outgrowth of Detroit-based Plymouth United Church of Christ; and the David Ellis Academy, which comes out of Greater Grace Temple Church.

Second Baptist, though, is still on the forefront fighting for quality public education for city children.

"I just wonder how many of our bright Detroiters will get the same type of quality education outside of charter, magnet or schools of choice that can make them competitive with students from around the world," said Turman, an Ohio native who attended public school before attending Harvard. "(The church) has continued to work in and work for quality public education. That remains a star in our crown."

Second Baptist boasts a number of other historical facts. It's the oldest black church in the Midwest, and it was the first to build a structure with a sanctuary and a second floor.

It also was the first to have a credit union for parishioners.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche was baptized there in 1927.

"Through the years, (Second Baptist) has made itself an effective contributor to the Civil Rights movement," said Arthur Johnson, 84, a former Detroit Branch NAACP president. "It has been a church with a clear social conscience and it has stood valiantly for the rights for all citizens."