California: Second Baptist Church Los Angeles

Color image of the exterior of the Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles
Second Baptist Church Los Angeles

David Horan, 2010, Paul Revere Williams Project

The Second Baptist Church, Los Angeles, evolved from a small prayer band of African Americans to a church in May 1885. There was already a white First Baptist Church. In 1887, Rev. Chester H. Anderson was called as the second pastor of Second. Rev. Anderson was born a slave. In 1888, he registered to vote in Los Angeles, which began Second’s involvement in the public life of Los Angeles and the nation. In 1913, W.E.B. Du Bois visited Los Angeles to organize a chapter of the NAACP; in short order a Los Angeles chapter was organized. In 1915, Rev. H.D, Prowd was called to pastor at Second. During his five-year tenure at Second, he served on the board of that chapter.

In September 1921, Rev. Thomas L. Griffith was called as the fifth pastor of Second Baptist Church. The city’s African American population was rapidly growing. The church needed to relocate and build a larger building. In 1924, the church purchased a large lot at 2412 Griffith Avenue. Shortly thereafter, the church hired Paul R. Williams, a local African American architect. Williams and William Marsh designed the new church, which opened on January 3, 1926. The new Second Baptist Church could seat up to 2500 people. In short order the new church building was the African American civic auditorium. Before WWII, the church was the largest meeting space owned by the African-American community in the western U.S. In less than a month after its opening, A. Phillip Randolph gave a public address. In July 1928, Second Baptist was the host for the 19th Annual NAACP Convention and W.E.B. DuBois was a featured speaker The church again hosted the National Convention again in 1942 and 1949.

In 1935, Attorney Thomas L. Griffith, Jr. the son of Rev. Griffith, would be elected president of the local chapter, a position he would hold for the next fifteen years. Thomas Griffith was the longest-serving president of the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP. In 1941, Rev. J. Raymond Henderson was called to Second Baptist. During his 22-year tenure, the church would play an active role in civil rights. In 1954, Second Baptist raised $1500 to pay the amicus briefs in the Brown case. Rev. Henderson took a six-month leave from the church to raise money for the National NAACP. In the summer of 1955 two young pastors from Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and David Abernathy, visited Los Angeles. When in Los Angeles, Rev. King would always preach at Second Baptist. He preached his last sermon at Second on March 17, 1968. Rev. Henderson, King, Abernathy, and Rev. Gardnor Taylor would organize the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which merged a more open theology with a commitment to civil rights.

In 1964, Rev. Thomas Kilgore was called to Second Baptist. He was a graduate of Morehouse College. Early in his tenure he and the church took an active role in the civil rights movement. Rev. Kilgore was a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1965, after an uprising in Los Angeles, again, the church and Rev. Kilgore played an active role in bringing peace to the city. Near the end of his tenure at Second Baptist, Rev Kilgore became a special advisor to the president of the University of Southern California. It should be noted that Rev. Kilgore served as chair of the Board of Trustees of Morehouse College during his tenure at Second Baptist.

The church’s legacy has left a moral imprint on Southern California. Members of the congregation fought restrictive housing covenants and racial discrimination in many forms at public beaches, swimming pools, and restaurants. At the dedication ceremony in 1926, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., the well- known pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, gave the sermon, which lauded the new building as the “most elaborate” Baptist church on the West coast.

When the NAACP convention came to Second Baptist in 1928, it was the first time that the NAACP held its national convention in the western United States.1 Keynote speakers during the 1949 NAACP convention, held again in Los Angeles, included United Nations statesman Dr. Ralph Bunche; Roy Wilkins, secretary of the NAACP; and actor, writer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.

In 1987, William S. Epps was called to pastor Second Baptist. During his tenure the church had seen a children’s center on its campus. The church has sponsored two senior living facilities next door. In 2009, the building was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places, Department of the Interior (Ref. #09000151). Being placed on the National Registry, the building went through a substantial renovation.

Over the past thirty years, the church has hosted many African American civic notables: Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. James M. Lawson, Rev. Calvin Butts, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and others. For the past 135 years, the Second Baptist Church, Los Angeles, has remained a beacon to the city and the nation. The church has played host to many other African American dignitaries, including educator Mary McLeod Bethune, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., civil rights activist Malcolm X, newspaper publisher/editor Charlotta Bass, and others. Second Baptist has also had a distinct role in the lives of two Nobel Peace Prize laureates (1950 and 1964). The church also provided scholarship funds to enable future Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche to attend the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

And very significantly, Second Baptist played a little-known yet pivotal role in the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Second Baptist church leaders mentored the young Dr. King, and participated with him in local and national civil rights activities. Second Baptist was the first and last Los Angeles congregation to host Dr. King, between May 1956 and March 1968.

Other noted persons to speak at Second Baptist include Malcolm X who delivered an impassioned speech at the church in May 1962 after several Muslims were shot in a gun battle with police in front of the Muslim Temple, and Adam Clayton Powell. Second Baptist has produced 6 Judges; Judge Thomas L. Griffith, Judge Albert D. Matthews, Judge Dion G. Morrow, Judge Robert Ward, Judge Maxine F. Thomas and Judge Consuelo B. Marshall plus many other celebrity personalities, such as Johnny Cochran Jr., ESQ; Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald and actresses Vickilyn Reynolds and Niketa Calame to name a few.

Throughout its history Second Baptist Church has played an important role in the history of the African-American community. As previously mentioned, on a local level the church provided an academic scholarship for Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Ralph Bunche. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. considered the church his “West Coast” home, and he spoke at the church on numerous occasions. In 1978, Second Baptist church building was proclaimed Historic-Culture Monument #200, by the city of Los Angeles.

The Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles, California became part of the African American Civil Rights Network in February 2021.

The African American Civil Rights Network recognizes the civil rights movement in the United States and the sacrifices made by those who fought against discrimination and segregation. Created by the African American Civil Rights Act of 2017, and coordinated by the National Park Service, the Network tells the stories of the people, places, and events of the U.S. civil rights movement through a collection of public and private elements.

Last updated: February 23, 2021