The Rev. Matthew Brown, pastor of St. Paul High Street Baptist Church in Martinsville.

Past and present will collide on Sunday, as the Rev. Matthew Brown hosts an event connecting the dots between the African American church and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. 
Scheduled for 3 p.m. at Patrick & Henry Community College’s Walker Theatre, the lecture, titled “The Legacy and History of African American Churches,” will cap Black History Month in the Martinsville area. 

“African-American churches rose among the horrors of slavery to allow African-Americans a safe place of spiritual equality and self-expression,” reads information from the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society, one of the organizers of the upcoming event. 

To spearhead the event, historical society officials approached Brown, the pastor of St. Paul High Street Baptist Church in Martinsville.

Brown believes the histories of churches like his and others have modern-day implications. 

“You can see every election cycle, politicians often visit churches, specifically African American churches, because our voices are so strong,” Brown said. “It’s been that way for many years, and I think it will continue to stay that way.” 

St. Paul High Street, which dates back 137 years, is one of the oldest churches in the area, according to Brown. “It’s located right in the heart of the city,” he said. “It has a rich history.” 

In the Martinsville area, the history of Black churches dates back to the years following the end of slavery. 

“In Martinsville, Grace United Presbyterian Church began with a meeting in 1882 at the home of Peggy Redd,” reads information from the historical society. “Her home would also be the starting point for High Street Baptist Church in 1885.”

Brown plans to explore this and other legacies in the upcoming event. 

“The African American church has had a major impact on the civil rights movement,” Brown said. “Throughout the years, any time any type of change needed to take place or any type of movement needed to get started, it started in the African American church.” 

Brown mentions figures like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others with strong ties to the Black church. 

“A lot of the work that he did, he went to the African American church for help,” Brown said. “Even today, the African American church plays a major role in advocating for change.” 

Brown believes it’s important to emphasize these aspects of history and is troubled by calls to the contrary. 

“I think some people are in denial,” Brown said, adding that he believes calls to exclude the more difficult parts of the nation’s history stem from a belief that systemic racism is a thing of the past. 

“I think it’s still a major problem in our country and our country has a long way to go as far as loving each other the way Christ would like us to,” he said.

The Rev. Tyler Millner feels the same. Millner, another prominent pastor in the Martinsville area, believes that the modern church has been complacent in its efforts to combat systemic issues. 

“Where is the counterpart and countervoice to this kind of stuff,” he said. 

Brown has similar sentiments about book banning. 

“In those places that books are being banned, students are not allowed to learn about Black history,” Brown said, adding that such efforts are ultimately detrimental to students. “I don’t think it’s fair to them, but I think that’s why the African American church plays an important role.”

Brown believes this dynamic isn’t going to change any time soon. 

“In most communities … it is the leading voice,” Brown said. “In the next 20 to 25 years I still see the African American church is still involved, and still making sure people are being treated fairly.” 

Dean-Paul Stephens

Dean-Paul Stephens is a reporter for Cardinal News. He is based in Martinsville. Reach him at dean@cardinalnews.org.