The history of King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church, located on a partially deserted stretch of 14th Street in northwest Detroit is really the story of two very different – yet similar – Baptist churches.
In 1926, Detroit had several dozen Baptist churches scattered around the city. One of the largest was Temple Baptist, a thriving congregation in Detroit's Northwest Goldberg neighborhood. Temple Baptist had been founded in 1892 as a "mission" Sunday school of the 12th Street Baptist Church. It became a church of its own in 1893 with 21 members known as the Fourteenth Street Baptist Church. The original wooden chapel at 14th and Antoinette was replaced by a brick structure in 1908 on the same location. When that church was outgrown as well, plans for a new one designed by architect J. Will Wilson were drawn up in 1915.
Construction on the new sanctuary, located on 14th and Marquette Streets, started later that year. The September 5th, 1915 Detroit Free Press described the new church as a "…building of English Gothic design of light buff brick with gray sandstone trimming and a green tile roof. The main floor will provide an auditorium with a capacity of 1,300 besides robing rooms, baptistery, study, library, organ loft, and choir. The basement will fulfill the needs of a modern church organization containing a complete gymnasium, shower baths, a banquet hall, kitchen, etc." The new church was dedicated in June of 1917.
It was during this time that the Baptist faith in Detroit started to take hold, as white southerners were drawn to the city in large numbers by the high wages offered by the auto industry. The parent church, Twelfth Street Baptist, also outgrew its location, and the two churches decided to merge into the newer building on 14th Avenue. Temple Baptist was formed on October 2nd, 1921, with a combined membership of 1,219 members.
As Temple Baptist grew, across town was another Baptist Church, forming under similar humble beginnings.
The need for industrial workers during and after the First World War drew many southern blacks to the city as well, where they earned higher wages and enjoyed a relatively higher standard of living. They settled in large numbers in the slum areas near downtown, establishing Baptist and Protestant churches throughout their neighborhoods.
King Solomon Baptist Church was founded on May 16th, 1926 by the Reverend Moses Williams. The congregation of 11 members held their first services at 1551 Rivard Street, in the heart of Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood. It took several years for the church to find a permanent location, sometimes moving twice a year, but eventually it settled at Alexandrine and Riopelle Streets in 1929. Through this time, the church continued to grow under the leadership of several pastors.
Temple Baptist Church, in the meantime, had undergone a startling transformation. From 1924 to 1934 the church had been led by Rev. Albert Johnson, a moderate fundamentalist. On leaving the church in 1934, he was replaced by J. Frank Norris, a sensationalist fire and brimstone preacher who had attracted a large following and controversy at the helm of First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
Born in Dadeville, Alabama in 1877, Norris was the son of an alcoholic father and a devout Christian housewife. The family moved to Texas in the 1880's, where Norris became a born-again Christian at a Baptist revival meeting. After attending seminary school, he pastored several churches in the Forth Worth area before landing at First Baptist Church in 1909. It was there that he discovered that gimmicky advertisements and fierce sermons attracted large crowds, pioneering a new form of southern fundamentalism that gained him the nickname "The Texas Cyclone."
In 1934, J. Frank Norris was invited to preach at a big tent revival in Detroit. He impressed the leaders of Temple Baptist Church, which asked him to take over the vacant pulpit. He accepted, while still retaining leadership of First Baptist in Forth Worth, splitting his time between the two cities. In his absence in Detroit, he entrusted the running of Temple to George Beauchamp Vick, a longtime friend and Sunday school superintendent. Norris would still be the draw to the church and preached there an average of two Sundays a month, traveling from Fort Worth by train, car, and airplane. Norris quickly transformed Temple Baptist, taking it in a much more conservative direction that appealed to the southerners moving into the area. Within a few months the church had more than doubled in size, and had to move services and Sunday school to nearby theaters down the street. Land across the street from the church was bought in 1936, and a 5,000-seat auditorium was dedicated in October of 1937.
After services were moved across the street, the existing 1917 church was converted into a education and recreation building. Norris was a firm believer that Sunday school and recreational opportunities would attract and keep new parishioners. The sanctuary was split into two floors of classrooms, and a new three-story wing was added to the north side in 1937. Another three-story wing was added to the south side in 1941, almost completely covering the curved wall of stained glass windows.
Thanks in large part to Norris's focus on building a large Sunday school program and an intensive canvasing program that sought out new members, within five years the membership of Temple Baptist went from around 800 members to over 3,100 in 1941. Members invited neighbors, church representatives cold-called prospective members, and even went door-to-door looking to bring people in. But not everyone was welcome, or wanted.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, blacks that settled in Detroit found it incredibly difficult to find decent housing outside of a small slice of downtown, which rapidly became overcrowded. When middle and upper class black families finally did move out into the surrounding areas, one of the only groups of people that would sell them houses was Detroit's Jewish population, themselves moving further out into the suburbs. Early in the 1910's and 20's, the neighborhood around Temple Baptist had a high concentration of Jewish people. When they started to move to the north side of the city in the 1940's, black families replaced them, creating one of the first large mixed-race neighborhoods in the city. In 1941 King Solomon Baptist followed the expanding black community as it moved north into what had been a Jewish neighborhood near Hamtramck. The church bought the former Ahavath Achim synagogue at 9244 Delmar in 1941.
To Norris and the southern congregation of Temple Baptist Church, the demographic change presented a fundamental problem. In coming from the south, they brought with them many of the prejudices that were commonplace during that time, and believed very strongly that God had forbid them from mixing with other races. To that end, it was unwritten policy that blacks could worship at Temple but were not allowed to be baptized or become full members. When they did chance to attend church services at Temple Baptist, those that responded to the altar call were later referred to a fundamentalist black congregation. Vick acknowledged the lack of black members, maintaining it was a biblical matter, but the reality was that it was cultural issue too. By 1950 the membership of the church was 75 to 90% southern migrant, all white, and staunchly segregationist.
Temple Baptist continued to grow through the Second World War, though Reverend Norris was starting to cede more responsibilities to his co-pastor, George Vick. Instead, he spent more time in Forth Worth, though he still made occasional trips up north. The combined membership of the two churches would eventually reach 25,000, with countless more being reached on a weekly basis by newspaper, newsletter, and radio broadcasts on WJR. But before long, a conflict over the handling of church matters between Norris and Vick led to a split between the two in 1950, and ultimately the two churches severed ties. J. Frank Norris died two years later at the age of 72.
Moving King Solomon
King Solomon Baptist was growing under new leadership as well. In March of 1944, Dr. Theodore S. Boone was called to become pastor of the church. Reverend Boone, the son of a respected pastor, was already well known throughout the south as prominent black author, historian, and poet. Before he came to King Solomon he had been dean of the Oklahoma School of Religion, a professor of black history at Langston University, a lawyer, and pastored several churches in Texas.
Under Boone new organizations spring up, including a Boy Scout Troop, a large vacation bible school program, orchestra, and religious education classes. As the congregation grew, its members started to move into the neighborhood of Northwest Goldberg where Temple Baptist was located. The church started looking for a new location as it outgrew the church on Delmar.
By 1951 there were over 3,300 members at Temple Baptist, and the buildings at 14th Avenue could no longer hold the congregation. Growth of automobile use and lack of parking made it difficult to accommodate members, many of which were driving from increasingly long distances away. In 1943 the church had purchased a large piece of land on Grand River to use for outdoor revivals. Finding that many of its members were moving into that area, Temple decided to build an enormous new church on the site in 1951.
With King Solomon looking for a new location, and Temple looking to sell, the paths of these two Baptist churches – one segregated white, one almost entirely black – crossed for quite probably the first and only time. In early 1952 it was announced that King Solomon had bought the 14th Avenue properties for $325,000, and would move in once the new Temple Baptist church on Grand River was completed.
From there, the two churches continued on very different courses. Attendance at Temple Baptist on Grand River peaked in 1956, averaging 4,400 members a week. Under Reverend Vick the church continued on much as it had for the past 20 years, carrying on the practices started by Norris. As pastor though, Vick became obsessed with statistics, recording how many people attended Sunday school classes, or answered altar calls each week, instead of focusing on the quality of preaching. By 1968 the number of members had fallen to a little over 3,000, as migration from the south had dried up and whites continued to move out of the city.
Serious criminal activity plagued the Grand River neighborhood in which Temple Baptist was located, with vandalism and theft becoming common in the 1960's. Most of the congregation was moving out the suburbs, and due to the long-standing policy of segregation, new members were harder to come by. As Vick would not seek out new members in the increasingly black neighborhood, the church relocated again in October of 1968 to Redford Township, outside of the city. The Grand River church, barely 15 years old, was sold to another black congregation, who still uses it today. Vick passed away in 1975.
Later church leaders recognized the severity of the race issue. Dr. A. V. Henderson, who assumed leadership of the church after Vick's passing, noted, "There was a hatred for the black race in Temple that I'd never seen in another church." Black members who attended were ultimately disappointed to find that they could not become members of the church. After the bus outreach program started to bring in more black worshipers than white, rather than open the church up to all races, the bus drivers were instead instructed to stop picking up blacks.
Yet it would not be until 1986 that the policy against admitting black members was changed, as the church came under pressure by local black ministers and a reporter for the Detroit News started investigating. On September 20th, the church deacons voted 29 to 7 to allow black members. A week later, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to end segregation. The first black member baptized on October 5th was Stewart Pigler of Southfield. The vote to desegregate made national news.
From 1988 to 1990, attendance fell from 2,000 to 1,500. The church moved to Plymouth in 1997, and renamed itself NorthRidge Church. The last traces of Temple Baptist vanished with the transition to the new church under newer, younger leadership.
When King Solomon Baptist moved to the former Temple Baptist church on 14th Avenue on November 25th, 1951, it gained one of the largest black-owned auditoriums in the city. Within a few short years, Reverend Boone was overseeing a flock of over 1,000 members that was constantly growing. Sunday school services continued in the old church across the street, which also served as a community center for the neighborhood. Youth outreach programs included classes, an indoor roller-skating rink, and a boxing program led by trainer Emmanuel Stewart. Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns got his start at King Solomon, and would go on to win professional boxing's National Golden Gloves award in 1977. Poet Margaret Danner founded the Boone House, a poetry and culture center named for Reverend Boone, at the church in the 1960's. It would attract such noteworthy poets as Dudley Randall and Langston Hughes.
King Solomon also became an important center for gospel music, with such acts as the Reverend James Cleveland, the Five Blind Boys, and The Clouds of Joy performing there over years. In the 1960's record executive Berry Gordy heard three young singers perform at the church, and was so impressed that he arranged for an audition. Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Diana Ross would go on to become The Supremes, one of the most popular musical acts of the decade. In 1968 the Gospel Music Workshop of America was founded at King Solomon, with its first meeting drawing over 3,000.
Thanks in part to its 5,000-seat auditorium, King Solomon Baptist went on to play a major role in the civil rights movement, as speakers could address large audiences. In 1954 Thurgood Marshall, then lead council for the NAACP, spoke at the church immediately following their victory in the Brown V. Board of Education ruling, which overturned segregated schooling. In 1956 US Representative Charles Diggs gave a national radio address about the murder of Emmett Till.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made two appearances at King Solomon; the first at the 78th annual National Baptist Convention of America meeting in 1958, and the second at the National Baptist Congress meeting in September of 1963, having just given his "I have a dream" speech in Washington DC a week earlier. Over 10,000 attend the conference, where King was the keynote speaker and delivered a speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation.
At the other end of the civil rights movement ideology, King Solomon Baptist also hosted speakers like Malcolm X. A few weeks after King's speech, the church held the Northern Grass Roots Leadership Congress. The keynote address "Message to the grass roots," given on November 10th by Malcolm X to a crowd of 3,000, was later described as one of the most influential speeches of his life. It is heavily critical of the non-violent MLK-led civil rights movement and the August march on Washington, favoring a violent revolution. In April of 1964 Malcolm X made another appearance at King Solomon, repeating his "The Ballot or the Bullet" speech he'd given a week earlier. In it he encourage blacks of all faiths and backgrounds to unite and resist oppression by violence if necessary, and join the political process. His presence isn't universally accepted – The church attempted to block his appearance - but having already paid a deposit and advertised it heavily, Malcolm X took the matter to court and prevailed.
Reverend Theodore Boone passed away in May of 1973, three years shy of the 50th anniversary of the founding of his church. By then the working-class neighborhood around King Solomon was feeling the pain of deindustrialization and white flight, and the number of worshipers started to drop. Many houses along 14th Avenue and the surrounding area became abandoned and were lost to arson and demolition, leaving large gaps in the neighborhood. The original 1917 church building, which had been used as an education and recreation center closed around 1999 and has been vacant since. By 2011, King Solomon Baptist church had fewer than 100 members. Unable to pay electrical bills, the church was heated by propane gas and powered by a generator.
The importance of the now-decaying Temple Baptist / King Solomon Church building on 14th Avenue was recognized when the City of Detroit awarded it historic designation in 2011. The church building was a microcosm of the social changes shaping the city around it, starting with segregation, white flight, the rise of the civil rights movement, and deindustrialization. Though there are no plans to reopen the church, it will hopefully follow the course of the city as it rises again and find a new use.