- Its Genesis
- Its Shepherds (1867-1940)
- Its Shepherds (1940-2007)
- Its Shepherds (2007-Present)
- Its Music
The Cedar Street Baptist Church is the seventh oldest African American church in the City of Richmond. In November, 1867, twelve members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church came together to start a church. With the blessings of members of the “mother church”, these members founded the Shiloh Baptist Mission to reach people who were freed or just recently emancipated by the Civil War, who resided in the eastern section of Richmond. The record shows that the first worship service took place in the home of Brother John and Sister Charlotte Robinson, which at that time was located at 901 North Seventeenth Street. That location is currently a portion of the area of a commercial/industrial site on Oliver W. Hill Way in Richmond’s Shockoe Valley).
Guided by the Holy Spirit, this small group of believers moved its worship services from the Robinsons’ living room to a building in the 1900 block on Cedar Street, a few blocks away. At that time, they changed the name of The Mission and it became the Cedar Street Baptist Church. That frame building has been razed and the site is now occupied by a section of the Jefferson Townhouse housing community. In January, 1930, the church members “march to” and dedicated a building at 1001 Mosby Street, a few blocks from its Cedar Street location and that building became the sanctuary.
Its Shepherds (1867-1940)
God has greatly favored Cedar Street with anointed and spirit-filled pastors. Due to their wise and dedicated leadership and guidance, the church has experienced a continuous growth and has become a guiding light in the community, as well as an example for HIS kingdom.
Under the leadership of its first pastor, the Reverend Robert C. Kemp, the church acquired the first building on Cedar Street. Reverend Kemp, a native of Beaverdam, Virginia served the congregation from 1869 to 1877 (eight years). He was one of the first students to attend and graduate from Richmond Theological Seminary (RTS). That institution was founded in 1867 to educate freedmen and later became a part of Virginia Union University.
From 1878 to 1885 (seven years), the Reverend Thomas Briggs, from northern Virginia, served as the second pastor of Cedar Street. He also studied at RTS from 1886 to 1888 and then completed his studies in 1890. The third pastor was the Reverend Jacob Turner, who served the church from 1886 until 1897 (eleven years). The Reverend O. Paul Thompson was the church’s fourth pastor and he served from 1898 until 1911 (thirteen years). Upon leaving Richmond, Reverend Thompson went on to pastor the Union Baptist Church in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Cedar Street’s fifth pastor was the Reverend William Gray, who served from 1912 to 1915 (three years). Reverend Gray was the grandfather of the late United States Congressman, the Honorable William Gray, III. Reverend Gray went on to pastor the Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia from 1925 until 1949. The Reverend William Harris, Sr. followed Reverend Gray and led Cedar Street from 1915 until 1917 (two years).
In 1918, the seventh pastor, the Reverend James H. Roots, Sr., was called to Cedar Street and he served from 1918 to 1940 (twenty-two years). In January, 1930, under his leadership, the congregation moved from Cedar Street to Mosby Street. Because of its small congregation, the church was only able to build a concrete basement to worship. Its members worshiped in the basement area for years with the hope that one day, they would be able to build a sanctuary above the basement. However, Reverend Roots was called to Heaven before the church was able to move from that basement.
Its Shepherds (1940-2007)
In 1942, Cedar Street called the Reverend John W. Kemp, the son of its first Pastor, the Reverend Robert Kemp. For ten years Reverend Kemp and the congregation worked hard to raise money to build the sanctuary over the basement. They later discovered that a Methodist congregation that worshiped in an edifice at 24th and N Streets had moved and that the building had been abandoned. That appeared to have been an ideal building for the Cedar Street membership, which had grown under Reverend Kemp to about two hundred-fifty people. The abandoned building could seat eight hundred-fifty people with a dining area that could seat two hundred. The building also had stained glass windows and a basement area. In addition, an eight-room parsonage was included in the sale arrangement. The Cedar Street congregation discussed the purchased of this property and in February1952, it voted to acquire the property. This historic purchase was featured in an article in the local newspaper entitled “Methodists Sell Church to Negroes.”
It was necessary for the church to borrow the money for the purchase of the historic building. However, because of its small membership, local mortgage lenders were reluctant to loan the money needed for the purchase. For that reason, the lending institution required additional security. Faced with that, five families and members of Cedar Street Baptist Church provided their homes as additional security for the mortgage. Those members were Deacon Meredith Davis and Sister Katie Davis, Deacon Willie Jones and Sister Estelle Jones, Reverend John W. Kemp and Sister Hattie Kemp, Deacon William McCree and Sister Hattie McCree and Sister Lessie Toliver.
Under the spiritual guidance of Reverend John Kemp and in its new environment, Cedar Street enjoyed a significant growth in its membership and its impact in the community. In September 1954, after only two years in the new location, Reverend Kemp died. After his passing, the congregation voted to change the name of the church from Cedar Street Baptist Church to Cedar Street Memorial Baptist Church. The decision was made to do this to honor the original location because the church had moved from its first sanctuary on Cedar Street.
In May 1955, the church by a count of ninety-four to eight, voted to call the Reverend Benjamin W. Robertson, Sr., to be its pastor. At that time, Reverend Robertson was a student at Virginia Union University and had been married for only a few months. He was only twenty-four years old and at that time, the youngest pastor in the city of Richmond. He had studied at Virginia Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia where he had received his Bachelor of Theology degree in 1951. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Virginia Union and both a Masters of Divinity and his Doctorate in Ministry degrees from Virginia University in Lynchburg. The Reverend Dr. Robertson proved to be one of the most dedicated and charismatic leaders and pastors in the country. Under his leadership, Cedar Street was nationally recognized for an astonishing growth to about four thousand members and renowned as one of the largest local congregations in the country. During his administration, the name of the church was changed to the Cedar Street Baptist Church of God. In 1958, the mortgage on the edifice was paid off. The mortgage document was burned in a ceremony involving Sister Pearl Kemp Marsh, daughter of Cedar Street’s first pastor, along with Brother James Roots, Jr., who was the son of the seventh pastor and Master Benjamin Robertson, Jr., the son of Dr. and Mrs. Robertson.
For fifty-two years, Dr. Robertson served as the pastor and dedicated leader of Cedar Street. During that period, he guided the membership in a multitude of programs and successes. Among those had been: “Our Cafeteria”, a community restaurant, an adult home, The Faith, Hope & Charity Supermarket, a food and clothing bank, The Robinson Kiddie College and a neighborhood outreach effort to serve area youth. To further attest to his leadership, Dr. Robertson and the Cedar Street members built and paid for the one and a quarter million-dollar sanctuary, office and fellowship facility. This edifice has a seating capacity of one thousand-five hundred people and has been in use since 1980. In April 1990, the church began a weekly television broadcast on Sunday mornings. To date, the weekly service continues. Further, Cedar Street began a community mission to serve meals to the disadvantaged during the Thanksgiving season.
Dr. Robertson served for a short period as the President of the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg. He was also the founder and first President of the Richmond Virginia Seminary.
After those many years of faithful and committed service to God and the community, Dr. Robertson retired as Pastor in May 2007.
Its Shepherds (2007-Present)
In December 2007, the Cedar Street congregation accepted God’s will to call the Reverend Dr. Anthony Michael Chandler, Sr., of Baltimore, Maryland to serve and lead as its new shepherd.
Dr. Chandler, demonstrating a charismatic and innovative leadership, has led the membership to pursue an even deeper relationship within the community while reclaiming its God ordained destiny. Within the first full year of his pastorate, the church paid for the complete renovation of its sanctuary and installed an enhanced sound system along with a “state-of-the art” media ministry. The church renewed its growth to over three thousand members and is recognized as the largest African American membership within the city of Richmond.
Several programs and activities began under Dr. Chandler’s guidance. These included a New Beginners’ Ministry to orientate new members to the church family. For the first time in the history of Cedar Street, the church started and continues its programs to aid in sheltering Richmond’s homeless population through CARITAS and cold weather shelter services. As well, an Emergency Mission Financial Assistance program was created. The church was cited by the Richmond City Council for its service to the homeless. In addition, the church started an active partnership to assist residents of the public housing community and to partner in hosting the annual mass fellowship event at the Richmond Center. The church published its first newsletter, “The Cedar Times,” in May 2012, and instituted semi-annual training and leadership conferences for church leaders. Further, in December 2012, Cedar Street opened its doors as a site for weekly Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. The church also hosted semi-annual city-wide revival services.
Under Dr. Chandler’s inspired leadership, Cedar Street embarked upon one of the most energized community outreach programs in the Richmond area. This work included the hosting of the annual Richmond Night Out and working with community leaders to bring services to underserved neighborhoods in the city. The church hosted a city wide voter registration rally with the nationally known Reverend Al Sharpton as the guest speaker in the summer of 2012. In addition, those community activities include back–to-school barber/beauty salon services, annual shoe giveaway, Heart 4 Haiti missions, water and hurricane relief for Flint, Michigan and Texas and the highly anticipated annual “Christmas at Creighton” community blessing. This effort includes adoption of families for Christmas, distribution of clothes, electronics, dolls, bikes, music, food and games to makes Christmas a little brighter for the area youth.
The church has continued its weekly TV broadcast and has initiated a daily prayer line, where leaders, members and friends pray every day for the church and community at large. Further, Dr. Chandler has been successful in the creation of the church’s multipurpose center, the church hosting an annual homecoming and tailgating event, as well as planning and conducting Men and Women Leadership Retreats. In 2015, Cedar Street’s music ministry participated at the Verizon Center’s “How Sweet the Sound” Competition and he provided insight and guidance in the release of the Indeed CD/DVD.
Cedar Street has continued its spiritual and numerical growth under Dr. Chandler to a current membership of over three thousand committed souls.
From generation to generation, one of the major strengths and features of worship services of Cedar Street has been its music. In fact, the church choirs were well known and recognized for their spiritual rendition of gospel music. This was especially true under the leaderships of Reverend Roots, Reverend John Kemp and Dr. Robertson, the church’s seventh, eighth and ninth pastors, respectively. That strength and recognition has continued under the pastorate of Dr. Chandler.
It was well known that if a person wanted to hear gospel music, Cedar Street Baptist Church was the place to be on Sunday morning. Nationally renowned gospel singers of the 1930s through the 1990 were frequent guests and visitors at the church and the choirs of the church would sing the music made popular by those artists. Singers such as Rosetta Thorpe, the Roberta Martin Singers, Clara Ward and the Ward Singers and the Pilgrim Travelers were just a few of the named people and groups who sung at various programs at the church. In the 1930s and the early part of the 1940s, the church choirs were under the direction of Brother Mack Hudson and upon his death, Sister Ruth Wilson became the Director and pianist. With Sister Wilson playing the piano and organ, the Senior Choir, the Roots Memorial, the Combined Choir, the Junior Choir and the whistling solos of Brother “Gus” Braxton became known throughout the community as some of the best in gospel music. Sister Wilson served for over fifty years as one of the most talented and most dedicated workers in the history of Cedar Street. Upon her retirement, Deaconess Sarah Holmes stepped forward to direct the music of the church and she continued in the same exemplary manner as her predecessor.
The Cedar Street revivals to “win souls” for Christ were major neighborhood events. Those revivals took place in the warm months of the 1940s and early 1950s. These services lasted for two weeks. They were noted for the singing and preaching. The Mosby Street building could only accommodate about three hundred people and church members along with others would occupy the space with standing room only. With no air conditioning, the windows were always opened and crowds of people would assemble at each of the windows to hear the singing and try to see and hear the evangelist.
Another significant event occurred in 1953, when the church was considering the purchase of its first organ. A decision was made to purchase the organ but the church could not afford to purchase chimes to accompany the new organ. A Cedar Street member, Brother James Martin, spoke up in the meeting and volunteered to purchase the chimes to accompany the new Hammond organ.
In the mid-1940s, several sons of the church formed a group called the Bright Lights. They went on to be considered as one of the best gospel quartets in the state. Those members of the group who, also were Cedar Street choir members, were Brother James Roots, Jr. the son of Reverend Roots, along with Brother Clifford Jones, Brother Willie E. Jones and Brother Will Hunt. In later years, Brother Clifford Jones became chairman of the Trustee Board and Brother Willie Jones served as a Deacon. In the early 1950s, James Roots sung and played the piano for Sis. Rosetta Thorpe and for the Pilgrim Travelers. These singers were internationally known recording artists.
In 1947, other sons and daughters of Cedar Street established a gospel choral group called the Virginia Choral Ensemble. In 1956, the Ensemble became a major part and contributor to the church’s music tradition and sung on the first Sunday of each month for over forty years. This group was mainly led by Brother Roger Cox and Brother Oliver Braxton. It was known throughout the state that if a person wanted a seat on the Sundays that the Ensemble sang, that person would need to get to church two hours before the service started.
In 1959, upon his return to Richmond from national tours, Brother James Roots organized a Junior Choir. He also organized the Male Chorus and church members and the city of Richmond were continuously blessed with great gospel music. The church was blessed further when Dr. Eric Henderson became director of the Male Chorus. That group was cited in February 1990, by the Richmond City Council for its outstanding service to further add to the blessings of great music. In 1975, the B. W. Robertson Jr. Memorial Choir (B.W.’s) was organized in memory of Dr. and Mrs. Robertson’s son, who tragically died in an automobile accident in July 1974. This group became one of the most popular choirs in the city. In the early 1950s, the Braxton Trio started and those singers later became the Braxton Singers. They were a much-appreciated addition to the talented voices of the church along with the Voices of Joy (V.O.J.) youth choir, who were under the leadership of Deaconess Eva Hurte, Mrs. Laura Wilkerson and the late Mrs. Ruth Sayles. Recognizing the need for a young adult choir to bridge the gap between the V.O.J. and the B.W.’s, with the blessing of Dr. Robertson, Deaconess Tiffany Scott founded the Voices of Inspiration in August 1997. Deacon Eric Taylor later joined and served as Assistant Director. The choir soared singing God’s praises for more than eleven years. In addition, the Sunbeams, the Gray Family Gospel Singers and the Seabron/Ellison duet were well known throughout the area as featured singers of good gospel music.
In 2008, under the direction of Minister James Johnson, the Voices of Cedar Street was formed and added to the great tradition of inspiring gospel music. The “Voices” have gone on to be honored and recognized as one of the most dynamic singing groups in the region and have received numerous awards and accolades.
Cedar Street Baptist stands as a blessed and splendid example of the Legacy of the Best in Inspirational Gospel Music.
AND THE BLESSED CHRONICLE CONTINUES….