Instituted in 1808 by enslaved blacks, St. Bartley PrimitiveBaptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama, exemplifies 206 years of blackreligious independence. It was located originallyoutside the city limits of Huntsville near present day Governors Driveand Madison Street, among the tombstones, dogwoods, and flowering treesof the Old Georgia Graveyard—a slave graveyard, and the only land that enslavedblacks could claim. The originalcongregation appears to have been composed of slaves transported by theirowners from Georgia to northern Alabama. St. Bartley, initially called the African Huntsville Church, is recognizedwidely as being Alabama’s oldest black church.
Early worship services at African Huntsville Church occurred at night so thatmembers might express freely their religious feelings and their desires forfreedom and self-expression, which were outlawed in Alabama at that time. Although the specific date is unknown, theAfrican Huntsville Church erected a small church edifice in the graveyard. Shepherded by William Harris, a free blackman, the church flourished, subsequently joining, in 1821, the Flint RiverAssociation in communion with other churches located along the Tennessee River. Although run by whites, the association neverattempted to impose its supervision on African Huntsville. As a consequence the church congregation grew. It numbered 265 by 1840, and 432 in 1849.
Slaves and free blacks, however, lived in an increasingly dangerous world innorthern Alabama toward the end of the antebellum period. As the South moved closer to disunion and war,the Huntsville city council restricted access to the city for any black citizenwho arrived in Huntsville after 1832. Nevertheless,black men represented African Huntsville at annual association meetings asdesignated in the 1814 Flint River Association constitution, and continued todo so from 1821 to 1866.
Historians attribute this evenhanded dealing by the Association to itsdoctrinal stance. The Flint RiverAssociation held that “the merits of Christ