Past Treasure of the Month – June 2014

Avenue L Missionary Baptist Church
Rev. Andrew Walker BerryPhotograph of Rev. Andrew Walker Berry, ca. 1985
(courtesy of Galveston and Texas History Center).

This June, various celebrations related to Juneteenth will take place in Galveston, in Texas, and throughout the country. One hundred forty-nine years ago, on June 19, 1865, African Americans in Galveston learned that they were freed from slavery under the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln two and half years earlier. The anniversary of this event is celebrated as “Juneteenth,” a pivotal date in African American history and in Galveston history. As part of these remembrances, Rosenberg Library exhibited a clerical robe which belonged to Rev. Andrew Walker Berry, former pastor of Avenue L Baptist Church, one of the oldest African-American churches in Texas. The robe was donated to the library by the church in 2009.

Rev. Andrew Walker Berry's robes

Born from a Slave Congregation

In 1840 — just one year after the City of Galveston was officially incorporated — members of the all-white First Baptist Church established a separate congregation for slaves. Worship services for the slaves were conducted in the balcony of the church at 3 o’clock each Sunday afternoon. Later called the Colored Baptist Church, this congregation eventually erected its own building at Avenue L and 26th Street on land donated by Judge J.P. Cole. A 20 x 20 foot wooden frame church was built, and by the 1850s it became known as Africa Baptist Church. After the Civil War, the property was formally deeded to members of the congregation, and in 1867 it was reorganized as the First Regular Missionary Baptist Church.

In the years following the Civil War, membership grew from 47 to 500. However, tragedy befell the congregation in September 1900 when a powerful hurricane devastated Galveston Island. The church building was lost and many members of the congregation lost their lives during the storm. The church’s current name, Avenue L Baptist Church, was adopted around 1903 as the church began to reorganize and rebuild itself.

A New Beginning for Avenue L

In 1904, Rev. H.M. Williams became pastor of the church, a position he held until 1933. Rev. Williams constructed a replacement wooden frame church and in 1917 oversaw the completion of the impressive brick building that houses the church today. The 1904 building still stands, although it is located behind the newer brick church. Members donated the funds to purchase colorful art-glass windows, a baptismal pool, a pulpit, and later, a pipe organ.

Reverend Andrew Walker Berry

Reverend Andrew Walker Berry was elected pastor of Avenue L Baptist Church in 1985. Still in his thirties, he became the youngest pastor in the church’s history. He served the congregation for the next five years until his unexpected death from a heart attack in 1990. Berry was born in Houston, Texas in 1947. His grandfather, Rev. W.D. Banks, was the pastor of Sunshine Baptist Church. Berry’s father, Claude A. Berry, was also a pastor, overseeing his own congregation at the New Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Houston.

After graduating from Jack Yates High School, Andrew Walker Berry attended Tillotson College in Austin. He earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in music at Texas Southern University. He later earned a PhD in music from Stephen F. Austin University. Berry received his degree in theology from Union Theological Seminary where he eventually joined the teaching faculty.

Rev. Berry authored numerous essays and writings as well as a book, Music in Evangelism. He also composed dozens of original gospel songs and was an accomplished organist.