History of the Diversity Center
Washington Avenue Baptist Church was built in 1885, but its congregation has an even longer history. Its members organized in 1867 and worshiped (as the “Second Baptist Church [Colored]”) in other locations before moving to Washington Avenue. The church building has been used continuously for church services ever since, and was an important part of Springfield’s thriving, economically successful African American community.
One of the church’s longest-serving pastors, the Reverend J.S. Dorsey came to the church in 1899 and saw the congregation through pivotal times. In 1904 he led the way as the congregation changed its name from “Second Baptist” to “Washington Avenue Baptist.” A second cornerstone was laid at the northeast corner of the building to commemorate the change. In 1906, Rev. Dorsey helped his congregation cope with the lynching of three men on the public square, a dismal turning point in Springfield’s African American history. And on November 30, 1911, Rev. Dorsey was leading a Thanksgiving Day service when the church caught fire and suffered significant damage. Rebuilding the church brought forth visible signs of the community’s support.
Recently moved to allow growth of the Drury University campus, workers “unbuilt” the historic church, saving the old bricks, stained glass, pews, doors, windows and steeple. Even the church’s distinctive neon sign was preserved. The church was rebuilt around a new skeleton on a new site just 200 feet from where it once stood.