Historians debate the date and place of the first black Baptist congregation in America, but it seems it was established in South Carolina between 1773 and 1775 by a slave named George Liele.
Liele was converted during the revivals that followed the Great Awakening. Licensed as an “exhorter,” he traveled up and down the Savannah River preaching to other slaves. At the Galpin plantation, near Silver Bluff, he and a white itinerant preacher named Elder Palmer ministered to a group of some thirty slaves. A church made up of both slaves and free blacks was soon established, and slave preacher David George was put in charge.
Three types of black Baptist churches developed: 1) the racially mixed church, 2) the separate black church under white leadership, and 3) the separate black church under black leadership. Blacks much preferred the separate, all-black churches, and in these churches slaves constituted the largest group.
Whites, however, regarded unsupervised black meetings as a security risk. Many slaves were permitted to attend only churches pastored by white ministers. Black ministers were often harassed until it was unmistakably clear they posed no threat to the community. Knowing they were watched by whites, black preachers were careful how they taught and conducted their services.
Many slaves, therefore, also held secret religious meetings on their plantations. Here they shouted and sang and encouraged one another without the intimidating presence of whites.
Any independence enjoyed by the black congregations quickly diminished after the aborted slave uprisings of the early 1800s. Whites began imposing increasingly severe restrictions on black religious activities. For example, a black person in Georgia who wanted to preach had to obtain a license from a local court of law and be certified by three white ministers. An Alabama law of 1832 required that five “respectable slave holders” attend any service at which blacks preached.
In spite of such restrictions, the number of black Baptists in the South continued to grow. Nearly all of the independent congregations in the South were Baptist.
Wesley Roberts, “Rejecting the ‘Negro Pew,’” Christian History Magazine-Issue 45: Camp Meetings & Circuit Riders: Frontier Revivals (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1995).