Wednesday, November 30, 2011

First Institutional Baptist Church

Civil Rights leader Lincoln Ragsdale and supporters march on Arizona state capitol for a public accommodations law, 1962 (Arizona Memory Project.Scottsdale Public Library)
1141 East Jefferson Avenue, Phoenix, Arizona

Missionary John B. Bell established the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, Arizona in 1910, making it the first African American church in Phoenix. Bell was a missionary who established two other churches in Arizona located in Bisbee and Douglass. In 1910, the year he arrived in Phoenix, he founded the Second Baptist Church Sunday School, which evolved into today’s First Institutional Baptist Church (FIBC), known as the First Colored Baptist Church until 1951. Originally meeting in a tent, the church acquired several plots of land in 1951 and is located today at 1141 East Jefferson Avenue in Phoenix, Arizona.

FIBC has a rich history and has contributed greatly to civil rights movements throughout the decades since its establishment. In the 1950’s and 60’s the church was dedicated to creating a more united Phoenix by providing leadership training and financial support to African Americans in need as well as by providing affordable housing for low-income minority families by building the Broadway House apartments. They were active in protests geared toward the housing situation as well as the integration of public schools in Phoenix. FIBC was commonly used as a meeting place for protestors before and after marches.
First Institutional Baptist Church, November 2011 (Photo by Emily Cano)
Dr. Warren H. Stewart, Sr. became senior pastor in 1977 and has carried on the tradition of working to change the greater Phoenix area in the fight for equality and civil rights. His leadership has involved the church in many causes concerning race and equality. Stewart is the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions from churches, universities and colleges, publications, and cities, including Phoenix’s 2003 Calvin C. Goode Lifetime Achievement Award. He is widely regarded as a prominent and effectual leader and voice in the state of Arizona. Stewart and the FIBC congregation were instrumental in the struggle for Arizona to allow for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Arizona’s relationship to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has been a controversial one. Many Arizona citizens, community leaders, and political leaders were strongly and openly opposed to having a day commemorated to honoring the life and incredible work of Martin Luther King, Jr. State legislators originally voted down the implementation of the national holiday. This resistance caused people and groups across the nation to push the governor to create the holiday regardless of the vote against it. Rev. Stewart (the then General Chairman of Arizonans for a Martin Luther King, Jr. State Holiday) invited MLK Jr. Day supporter Governor Bruce Babbitt to FIBC to comment to his congregation on the importance of this holiday. As he faced the congregation, he promised to sign the holiday into existence, which despite doubts, he did shortly after his address. Babbitt overturned legislative rule and signed the documents that officially created a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Arizona in May of 1986. Just the year after it was signed, however, Governor Evan Mecham nullified it as his first order of business. Rightfully causing a national uproar, the congregation was again active in protests working to have the holiday reinstated, which it finally was in 1992. FIBC was instrumental in leading the fight toward obtaining this holiday through their advocacy and raising awareness about the conflict to Arizona citizens.
First Institutional Baptist Church, November 2011 (Photo by Emily Cano)
Today, under the leadership of Rev. Stewart, the congregation of approximately 1500 members is still highly involved in activism around the greater Phoenix area, both by raising awareness on issues such as the injustice of Arizona’s SB 1070 and continuing to promote racial equality. Stewart urged President Obama to join them in their rally against the bill and to work toward immigration reform. On May 29 of 2010 the congregation participated in a march on the state capitol protesting the controversial SB 1070 immigration law, continuing the fight for equality and justice that even the first members of FIBCworked for back in the mid-1900s.

- Emily Cano, Clifford Chen, and Monika Barton


1. Arizona Central – Thousands March In Phoenix To Protest Immigration Law:

2. First Institutional Baptist Church:

3. Lincoln, C. Eric, Mamiya, Lawrence, H. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Duke University Press. 1990.

4. Mohave Daily Miner – Babbitt Orders King Holiday.103rd Year, No. 171. May 19, 1986.,1734602&dq=first-institutional-baptist-church+phoenix&hl=en
5. New York Times – Arizona Struggles Anew To Erase Its Negative Image:
6. Shapiro, Thomas M., Race, Homeownership and Wealth. Washington University Journal of Law and Policy. 2006. pp. 1-32.

7. Whitaker, Matthew C., Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West. University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

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