Union Baptist Church
“A Church On The Move For Christ Since 1831”
Union Baptist Church is the oldest African American Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio . According to church records, Union was organized July 21, 1831 by fourteen dedicated Christians, ten men and four women who yearned for the freedom of body and soul to worship God in spirit and truth. They yearned for the opportunity to self-expression and for the assurances that as free blacks, they would not be set apart from the other congregants during worship services, for such was the practice in 1831. As free blacks, they had been attending the Enon Baptist Church, however, these ten men and four women of tenacious will and indomitable spirit, who wanted to worship God in dignity and in true freedom, felt it necessary to leave Enon Baptist Church to establish a church of their own.
After much prayer, at a meeting presided over by Reverand Samuel Lynn, these fourteen courageous Christians requested letters of dismissal, which were granted reluctantly by the Enon Baptist Congregation. This indeed was a bold step; for those in the Enon Congregation felt that these pioneers did not have the knowledge, the organizational skills, nor the finances for such a challenging undertaking. However, these brave Christians had the faith that God would surely direct and provide for them, which reveals something of the human spirit at its best, for Union’s origin predates the beginning of the Civil War. The first services were held in a house located on Third Street between Elm and Plum Streets. This church was known as the Colored Branch of the Enon Baptist Church; but this small flock became anxious to have a church building as a place of worship. In just four short years, the dream of this newly formed congregation became a reality. To finance the church each member was charged a certain amount for a pew. This was known as “pew rent.” Additionally, each member was asked to contribute twenty-five cents weekly. The men of the congregation, who generously provided free labor, did the actual construction of the church building. This new small brick building measuring 20 x 40 feet was built on the east side of Western Row, which is now Central Avenue, between Second and Third Streets. The members of this independent church in 1835 took as its’ name, the African Union Baptist Church. The word African was later dropped in order to include all nationalities. The Reverend David L. Nickens, from Chillicothe, Ohio was selected as Union’s first pastor.
Union has always stood as a beacon light in Cincinnati. Seeing the need to religiously educate the many children in the area, a Bible School was organized on February 24, 1834 for the purpose of training boys and girls in Christian Education. Mr. Joseph Dixon was the first superintendent. Later the Reverend Joseph Emery, a Caucasian missionary from Ninth Street Baptist Church, who never let race enter into his work for the Lord, became superintendent of the Sunday School. He served from 1850 to 1890.
In 1840 the members of the little brick church on Western Row moved to a new location on Baker Street. The church was located on Baker Street for twenty-four years.
Union Baptist Church has always been involved in the missionary work of planting new churches. On Sunday April 16, 1839, the First Baptist Church was organized under the leadership of Reverend Wallace Shelton, an itinerate pastor Missionary Baptist Preacher, a member of Union Baptist Church, Cincinnati, OH who arrived in Xenia, on a horse purchased for him on March 25, 1836, for his missionary work going ‘NORTH’ to plant Churches. With the guidance of Reverend Wallace Shelton, the First Baptist Church that would become Zion Baptist Church was organized. The name was changed to Zion Baptist Church. Under Rev. Wallace Shelton leadership in establishing Zion Baptist Church, Xenia the historic documents record the names of 15 original members of Zion Baptist Church of Xenia, Ohio.
Through the outreach efforts of Rev. Wallace Shelton, Second Baptist Church in Springfield, Ohio(organized in 1859) and Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Lockland(organized in 1869). Several members of Union Baptist Church left in 1841 to form Zion Baptist Church (organized in 1842), with Rev. Wallace Shelton as its first pastor. Other early churches started under the auspices of Union include First Baptist Church of Cumminsville (organized in1878), First Baptist Church of Walnut Hills (organized in 1863), Mt. Olive Baptist Church (organized in 1892) and First Baptist Church of Elmwood, all in Cincinnati; First Baptist Church of Hazelwood in Blue Ash, Ohio; Chatham, Canada congregation and First Regular Baptist Church, Dresden, Ontario (organized in 1857). More recently, churches started under the auspices of Union include Nu African House of God in Christ and Saving Grace Community Church, both in Cincinnati.
In 1845, by an act of the Ohio General Assembly, the church was incorporated under the name Union Baptist Church of Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1864, as the church continued to grow and prosper spiritually, numerically and financially, the members being people of vision and led by the Holy Spirit purchased the United Brethren Church on the southwest corner of Richmond and Mound Streets. In this same year, seeing the need for burial space for people of color, the church purchased sixteen acres of land for a cemetery in Price Hill on Cleves Warsaw Pike. This cemetery still remains as a final resting place for many Cincinnatians today. Union also operated the United American Cemetery on Duck Creek Road. United American is the oldest black cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio. Much Cincinnati history can be learned by looking at the names and other census data on the tombstones in both cemeteries.
During the 1800’s, many blacks were escaping from slavery by crossing the Ohio River to freedom. Union served as a sanctuary for those who were seeking liberation from the dehumanizing exploits of slavery. The church provided them with food and clothing. The church also set up a school to teach them reading and writing. At this time, it could be said that many of the people came to Union for the things they needed and stayed for the things that God provided. In 1895, a new church building was erected on the Richmond and Mound Streets site at a cost of $40,000. In 1924, a church annex was built and dedicated. In 1950, a new three-story social service center was built. This building was paid for in cash. Members and clubs of the church donated all furnishings. The Social Center provided much need space for additional church and community activities.
By the grace of God, Union continued to grow and prosper at the Richmond and Mound location for many years, with the membership representing more than 1000 families. However, in 1960, the church learned that it was in the path of a massive urban renewal project. This was a great shock to congregation who had a rich history of service to mankind in the downtown area for more than 100 years. Once again, Union was forced to relocate. Through God’s guidance and the diligent work of the dedicated members of Union, this present site on Seventh Street was secured, thus erecting our present church. This was a monumental accomplishment. This sacred place of worship was dedicated to “To The Glory of God,” June 15, 1971. Another milestone was accomplished December 15, 1985 when the church mortgage was burned. Union is the only church displaced by urban renewal that bought property and rebuilt in the downtown core area. With the completion of the Page Tower High Rise Apartment Building, Union became the developer of an entire city block.
Seventeen men, chosen of God, have served as pastoral leaders of Union. The present church and Page Towers were completed under the leadership of our sixteenth pastor, the Reverend Wilbur Allen Page, who served here in this vineyard for sixty-six years. Of special interest to the congregation and visitors are the Page Archives and Mahalia Saunders Library located on the upper level of the church. Photographs of pastors of this great church are mounted and displayed on the main level of the church. The stained-glass window which illuminates the baptistery, the Rookwood Fountain in Hayes Hall, along with the magnificent pipe organ were moved from the church at Richmond and Mound Streets. A plaque bearing the names of the original fourteen founders hangs in the front vestibule of this church.
Our present pastor of Union, Reverend Dr. Orlando Benjamin Yates accepted God’s calling to be our pastor and spiritual leader February 7, 1988. During his tenure, Pastor Yates has given spiritual enlightment and inspiration to our congregation and to the Cincinnati community. Through his gospel messages, many new families and individuals have been added to the church. He is a “people person” who seeks to serve this present age, his calling to fulfill. Under his leadership, many outreach ministries have been initiated that reach into the community, impacting the lives of many.
We know this history does not include the invaluable contributions made by the many individual members, average people who have sat next to you on Sunday mornings down through the years, for God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. However, we do indeed thank our Heavenly Father for the abundant blessings he has bestowed upon us. Our history is a tribute to our founders, our pastors, associate ministers, deacons, trustees, choirs, musicians, Sunday School staff, ushers, church clerks, drama guild members, the clubs, the missionary department, youth department, laymen’s league, office and maintenance staff, and the congregation as a whole…past and present, who have given so unselfishly of themselves, bringing us to this time and place. As members of Union, we have and will continue to take pride in our past, yet choosing to live in the challenges of the future, the yet to be, as we go forward to do God’s wonderful work.
A more in depth history and authentic records of Union Baptist Church are housed at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, Ohio. Please visit Cincinnati-Connections for artifact inquiry of the historic records of Union Baptist Church.