In September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was to take effect January 1, 1863. This new freedom allowed blacks to be able to travel and meet more freely than during the period before the Emancipation, and thus traveled to Norfolk by way of a foot ferry to attend services at Bank Street Baptist Church, which had been erected in Norfolk near what is now MacArthur Mall. The trip to Norfolk from Berkley by foot ferry was actually a rowboat that carried a few people at a time. There was the Norfolk Ferry but the landing was very far from the road that led to the church and it cost 10 cents. Definitely, a church was needed on the Berkley side of the river.
In 1865, 30 members of Bank Street Baptist Church who lived on the Southside of the Elizabeth River began meeting for prayer. Union tents were abandoned throughout the South. One of these tents proved to be a perfect meeting place for the group.
The founders included: Isaac and Louisa Archer, Fannie Bonney, Matilda and Richard Braxton, Hilary and Nancy Cason, Sallie Clark, Mary and William Corbin, William Finchett, Armistead and Frances Green, Sarah Hatton, Lovey and Nathaniel Holmes, Rev. Samuel S. Jones, Joshua Lewis, Samuel Linnette, Martha Moore, Julia Moton, Catherine and Charles Newton, James Newton, Charles and Maria Press, Elizabeth Randall, Martin and Victoria Wilson, and Reuben Wright.
Later, the meetings moved to various homes. In the first part of 1868, they moved to a place called Cedar Grove for their prayer meetings, which were led by Reverend Samuel Jones and Robert Snead. On April 15, 1868, these 30 members, leaving in peace, secured letters of dismissal to form a new church. They became Cedar Grove Baptist Church and Rev. Samuel Jones was elected pastor. The church was named for the cedar trees that lined the road leading to the church. The church building was an old plantation house and services were held in a large upper room.
The Sunday School was organized in 1872. Mr. George Munden was the first superintendent. The Bible was the only book used. The current Dean Munden Sunday School Class bears his name and that of Mrs. Mary Lou Dean, one of the first teachers.
In 1873, Rev. Richard Wright of Portsmouth, Virginia was elected pastor. As the congregation continued to grow, Rev. Wright began fundraising to purchase land and begin construction of the First Church building. The land was at the corner of Montaland and Chestnut Streets. During his pastorate, the first choir was organized. Rev. Wright died before construction was complete. Rev. Madison Lewis of Norfolk, Virginia, who ministered from 1879-1884, was pastor when the new church was completed. The name of the Church was changed to First Baptist Montaland. The cornerstone, which we still have, says Cedar Grove 1883.
Rev. H.L. Barco of Camden, North Carolina came in 1886. The BYPU (Baptist Young People’s Union) and the first Missionary Circle were organized by him. He pastored until 1889.
Rev. Sutton E. Griggs of Texas pastored from 1900-1902 proved to be a great financier and found a way of reaching all classes of people, especially servicemen.
Our next pastor Rev. J.H. Randolph of Washington, D.C. organized the first Male Usher Board. He stayed from 1902-06.
Rev. W.R. Slade of New Point, North Carolina was pastor one year and resigned.
Rev. Lafayette Sharpe of Edenton, North Carolina was installed February 24, 1907.
The church began to take on new life and experienced tremendous growth. The leadership felt that the environment was not conducive to the welfare of the church, so a plan was launched to purchase a more desirable site. $1,500 was set aside for this purchase. A site was found at Berkley Ave. and Culpepper St. and construction began in 1908. During construction of the new building, the Church at Montaland was destroyed by fire. The officers secured the use of the Masonic Hall for services until construction was completed. The new church was completed and dedicated as First Baptist Church Berkley on November 10, 1910. After two years in the new church, Rev. Sharpe’s failing health caused him to resign in 1912.
Rev. A.O. Bell of Lynchburg, Virginia was called in 1914. The church experienced tremendous financial struggles and loan sharks were in possession of numerous promissory notes. Rev. Bell set out to clear the church of these obligations. The debts were wiped out under his plans. The first female ushers were organized by Rev. Bell in 1918. He left in 1919.
Rev. John Carter Diamond of Cumberland, Virginia came in 1920 with his wife Teresa. She was especially sensitive to the needs of young people. Suddenly in the spring of 1921, she died. Two years after her death, Rev. Diamond met and married Mary B. Hill of Boston, Massachusetts, in a wedding at First Baptist Church Berkley. The new Mrs. Diamond stepped in and continued programs already in progress. The Diamonds had the first child born to a minister of this church during his service, with the birth of a daughter, Evelyn Carter Diamond. Later, they were blessed with a second daughter, Mary Clotille Diamond, a son John Carter Diamond, Jr. and an adopted son Oswald J. Diamond.
During Rev. Diamond’s pastorate, the nation experienced the Great Depression and the church came to the aid of countless persons in the community who were unemployed and destitute. With donations of food provided by local merchants and bakeries, the Missionary Circle set up a soup kitchen and bread line, the first in the area which provided a daily ration of bread, beans and soup served to all who came.
Since many mothers were forced to work to supplement the family income, in 1939 the church began a nursery school to care for great numbers of children who were left unattended. They provided food, rest and periods of instruction. In time, the nursery school was replaced with a church kindergarten. Mrs. Diamond’s love for music inspired her to form several singing groups. This included: The Diamond Jubilee Victory Chorus, Junior Choir, Young People’s Choir and The Sunshine Singers.
Rev. Diamond remained at First Baptist Church Berkley for 36 years. After his retirement, he spent much of his time at the church in the position of Pastor Emeritus. In 1969, Rev. Diamond relocated to Atlanta, Georgia with his son.
Rev. Noel C. Taylor of Clifton Forge, Virginia was called as pastor in 1957. He brought with him his wife, Barbara Jean, daughter Sabrina and mother Hettie. Under his leadership, the members were led to acknowledge their Christian duty to the church through tithing. He also increased participation of young people in the morning worship services. The Youth Choir was revived and Youth Ushers organized. The first Deaconess Board was named. Rev. Taylor remained at First Baptist Church Berkley until 1961, when he was called to a pastorate in Roanoke, Virginia.
The church called Rev. William D. Tyree, Jr. of Ahoskie, North Carolina, who came in September 1962. He brought with him a devoted wife, Josephine Irving Tyree, two daughters, Linda and Sabrina, and a son, our current pastor, William D. Tyree, III, who was not yet 2 years old. His philosophy was “Kingdom Building”. Rev. Tyree, Jr. worked to strengthen the educational programs at First Baptist Church Berkley, by instituting classes for new members and those seeking restoration. In addition, there were classes for Bible study, church doctrine, and evangelism. The pastor founded FiBaChu, a federally funded program to give potential dropouts of Norfolk Public Schools and their parents tutoring and counseling.
Recognizing the need for a new facility, the congregation began, in the mid-1970s the task of building a new structure. The first phase was the educational building, completed in February 1977. The second phase was the new sanctuary, which was financed through the sale of church bonds. Our dream was realized when services were held for the first time on June 22, 1986.
After 30 years of dedicated and faithful service to God, the congregation of First Baptist Church Berkley and the community, illness forced Rev. Tyree, Jr. to limit his duties as pastor. During this time, Rev. William D. Tyree, III, Assistant to the Pastor, traveled from Maryland to Norfolk each week to conduct worship services and to serve the congregation whenever needed. Our constant prayers for the pastor’s recovery were not in God’s plan. On December 23, 1994, God called our beloved pastor home. This ended more than 32 years of service in this mountain.
Though saddened by the death of Rev. Tyree, Jr., we continued to trust that God would direct us in the choice of a new pastor. Our prayers were answered on the first Sunday in May 1996 when Rev. William D. Tyree, III came as our thirteenth. His wife is the lovely and stylish Shirley Hunter Tyree. Pastor Tyree, III has been in the forefront of trying to reach the community for Christ. The church has provided food and shelter for the homeless through NEST (Norfolk Emergency Shelter Team), has ministered in the park annually in conjunction with the Berkley Reunion. We participated in Hope for Hampton Roads, sponsored by the Tidewater Baptist Ministers Conference, with services being held in Harbor Park. The pastor implemented programs to further missions by taking a group from our church with other missionaries for a week of Bible School and worship services in Jamaica. Later, Pastor Tyree, III took a group of our youth and adult members on a missions trip to Kenya. The church seeded monetary assistance to victims of the following devastations: Hurricane Mitch in Central and South America Hurricane Floyd in Princeville, North Carolina; and through World Vision, the tsunami in Asia and Africa, and Hurricane Katrina. In support of the American Diabetes Association and their efforts to eradicate diabetes, we have formed Walkers for Christ and Cyclists for Christ. In 2010, the church underwent a major renovation which included complete changes to the sanctuary and fellowship hall, as well as the addition of a welcome center and administrative offices.
A review of our history shows that it is indeed one of which we can be proud. We have endeavored to build on the foundation laid by our founders and challenge present and future generations to continue the legacy.
Millicent N. Clark
Blanche N. Duggins