BIRMINGHAM—The 16th Street Baptist Church is your quintessential church. It’s a stout building with real downtown character. Red clay brick. Ornate stained glass. The whole enchilada.
There are homeless men seated on the curb. One man is asking people for money. He zeroes in on me.
He’s smoking a cigarette while wearing a medical mask at the same time. Which is impressive.
“You wanna know more about this church?” he asks.
His old T-shirt is ratty and stained. His skin is aged. He offers to tell me the church’s story in exchange for a few bucks. A “donation,” he calls it.
He pockets the money and launches into a spiel.
“This structure was designed in the turn of the century by a dude named Wallace Rayfield.” He pushes his mask aside and lights another bent Camel.
Rayfield was American history’s second black architect. He was formally educated in Columbia University, and in 1899 he was a unique treasure. A lot of people consider this building to be one of his masterstrokes.
He designed buildings all over
the U.S., there are nearly ten in Birmingham alone. He built others in New York, West Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, Chicago, Pensacola, and one located in the little crossroads of Milton, Florida.
His creations are works of art in any town. Though you have to know where to look for them. Rayfield’s buildings recede into a cityscape like they’ve always been there.
“This church congregation is old, dude,” the man says. “Goes way back in time.”
This church was founded in 1873, it was the first organized black congregation in Birmingham. Some very well-known American men and women have spoken from this pulpit. People you’ve heard of, like W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr.
The old man goes on, “The last time Doctor King came here, this place was, like, standing room only. And it was hot, brother. The…