Upon a knoll sitting quietly above the railroad tracks at the cross section of Centralia and Chester roads is a gothic-looking structure that is very familiar by old-timers but may be a curiosity for new comers.
The gothic structure may seem unusual for this area. According to Baskerville, the design was influenced by the architectural styles that were in the mainstream during the early ‘20s. There were travelers who carried plans with them and most likely that is how the church received its building plans.
The building is a replacement structure of the original church building of Historic First Baptist Church Centralia, The building was destroyed by fire in 1996 and rebuilt as close to the original church that was constructed in 1926.
One night in 1996 some boys were drinking and burning candles inside. A fire started and their church was destroyed. It was a sad day for the community. Many folks felt it was racially motivated, but their pastor, Dr. Wilson Edward Brown Shannon, said they were not interested in hate and anger; they wanted healing and they forgave the boys. Being good stewards of the property, the congregation wanted to rebuild. They replicated the original structure in eight-and-a-half months with 800 volunteers. They did have some small contractors to complete some details, but mostly the new building was built by the church members. Dr. Shannon said the boys who started the fire came and helped as well.
When the congregation moved to Kingsdale Road in 1963, known as their “flagship church,” they held onto their historic church, but used it mostly for storage. According to records, they had five -and-a-half tons of books stored there that were used for their missionary reading programs.
Today the structure is considered their auxiliary building and museum. They have relics from their original building saved after the fire. These are enclosed in a glass case that stands about ten-feet tall and five-feet square. The background photo in the case is of their church burning. There are news articles and photos displayed. One photo shows former Governor Gilmore, who was attorney general at the time, on the steps of the newly built church.
The community is able to use the auxiliary building for weddings, reunions and other special occasions. The church uses it for special programs. “We share it and we do it interracially,” said Dr. Shannon.
The history of the church dates back to 1867. Two years following the close of the Civil War, the First Baptist Church was organized under the name of the Salem African Baptist Church.
They met on land that was once a grape arbor and given to them by a white family, Mr. and Mrs. P. A. Chalkley. The small group of members forming this church had previously worshipped with the Salem Baptist Church (White) which was located on Courthouse Road, two miles west of Centralia.
The families gather around the bush arbor and came together to build a church. Some of the names included in the founding Board of Trustees and families were: Branch, Dodson, Friend, Goode, Hill, Johnson, Lewis, Watkins, White and Wilkinson. Many of these family names are still included in much of the membership today, according to church historian Jane Baskerville, as well as many more.
The church continued to grow and in 1962 the church purchased 72 acres of land for its present site on Kingsdale Road. On July 1, 1962, a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the upcoming new edifice. The congregation entered the new building for its first service on August 4, 1963, on Kingsdale Road where they continue to hold worship services.
They are undergoing a $3 million building program, which will include a 36-foot by 60- foot indoor heated swimming pool. The pool is being constructed for senior and children swimming programs. A gym is also under construction with a banquet room that will seat 750 people.
Dr. Shannon has been pastor of First Baptist Church Centralia for 24 years. Before him, Dr. Samuel Moss Carter served as pastor for 40 years.