Bethel Baptist Church a pillar of the black community

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Camilla P. Thompson, 91, is fragile and slow in her steps. These days, her vision is dim, a victim of glaucoma, but her mind is bright as a 40-watt bulb

"I like history," she said, "I don't know why many don't talk about history today."

Thompson is a retired educator. She is also the chairman of Bethel Baptist Institutional Church's history ministry. She talks the history of her church with zeal and enthusiasm.

"We've been working on a book. I'm just waiting for us to finish writing this history," said Thompson.

At the Dallas Graham Branch of the Jacksonville Public Library, she talked about Bethel's history.

The church was formed in 1838. One publication called it a good year.

"There were four white members and two colored members who were slaves," she said.

It was an interracial church when interracial was not common. The church soon grew to where it would split; it would split along racial lines.

"They were one at one time," said Thompson, "After the Civil War, the two groups decided they did not want to worship together."

They parted ways. It was followed by lawsuits as to who owns the property, the blacks or the whites. The division gave birth to another Jacksonville institution, First Baptist Church Jacksonville.

In 1894, Bethel Baptist changed its name to Bethel Baptist Institutional.

"The church had gotten to the place where it had several schools, like Florida Baptist Academy," she said.

It was damaged by the Great Fire of 1901 and was rebuilt. Over the years, it moved to several locations downtown, but in 1904 rested in its current location.

In 1978, it was listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.

"I was baptized in Bethel in 1933," she said.

Thompson was one of the first Girl Scouts and has been an active member since. The church reached into the community, producing civic leaders.

"Some of the earliest city council members came out of Bethel," said Thompson.

It has become a political powerhouse. Candidates vying for public office know they must make a stop at Bethel Baptist to win over black voters.

She said part of the church history reveals that it was also the impetus for the Afro American Life insurance Company because church leaders saw the need for insurance for Jacksonville's black citizens.

The church is now celebrating 176 years; Thompson believes it has played an important role in shaping Jacksonville's history and will continue to do so because the last chapter in Bethel's history has yet to be written.


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