Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church, “The Mother Church of Black Primitive Baptists,” was organized in 1820 by Elder William Harris while blacks were still slaves. The church is 196 years old and is recognized as the oldest black church in the State of Alabama.
Saint Bartley had her origin in a graveyard which served as the burial ground for slaves. At first, Pastor William Harris preached his sermons among the tombstones and a host of flowering trees planted by the slaves’ families. It is believed the graveyard was given the name “Old Georgia Graveyard” because the slaves migrated from Savannah, Georgia to Huntsville with their masters. Eventually a building was erected there and was known as the “Huntsville African Baptist Church.”
During the Civil War, the occupation of Huntsville by Union soldiers resulted in the destruction by fire of the small church that had been built in the Old Georgia Graveyard. Elder Bartley Harris (the second pastor of the church) was approached by white citizens who asked him to hide their valuables from the Union troops. He did so and when the soldiers questioned him, he refused to tell them if and where he had hidden them, so in retribution, the soldiers burned the little church to the ground. After the war, the valuables were returned to the citizens by Harris.
After the war, President Ulysses Grant heard of the soldiers’ actions and appropriated money for rebuilding the church. A bigger and better sanctuary was built and rededicated on what is now Williams Street in 1872. At this time the name of the church was changed from “Huntsville African Baptist Church” to “Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church” in respect for the saintly behavior of the pastor.
Reverend Bartley Harris is also known as the pastor who held huge baptisms at the Big Spring. It is said he did as many as 300 in one day. His portrait was painted by the famous local artist Maria Howard Weeden.
In 1964, Saint Bartley Primitive Baptist Church was torn down due to urban renewal and rebuilt at its present-day location on Belafonte Avenue in Huntsville. The first worship service was held at the present location the first Sunday in December 1965. The present church has part of the altar and some stained glass windows from the previous one. The church’s website is saintbartleypbchurch.org.