One of the oldest African-American churches in Greenville, North Carolina didn’t always stand on the outskirts of the city. In fact, its current members remember a time when what’s now known as uptown Greenville was once downtown Greenville, and served as a thriving pillar for the African-American community.
Sycamore Hill Baptist Church is a name some members are getting used to, including Ann Floyd Huggins, who grew up in the church.
“The nickname for it was First Baptist Church, which meant it was the first Baptist church in Greenville at that time,” said Huggins.
This made it a packed house every Sunday.
The early morning hymns and preaching had an impact on Alton Ray Harris’s life who grew up in the Shore Drive Community and witnessed the area’s impact on black lives.
“People don’t know that downtown was very industrial, we, when I say we, I mean the black neighborhoods down there,” said Harris. “We didn’t really have to go anywhere for doctors and stores, ‘cause we had a black dentist, we had a funeral home, we had a family doctor, we had a lawyer, all of those things down there that you go to places now, we had them downtown.”
The church was founded in 1867, but it wasn’t until 1917 that the church opened its doors at the corner of First and Greene streets.
As the church continued to grow, so did the problem.
“When the urban renewal came, they (city of Greenville) made an offer and we didn’t accept it,” said Harris. “Then as we didn’t accept it, somehow mysteriously it got burned.”
While the ashes fell, so did the emotions of church members, including Greenville native and Sycamore member Freddie Outterbridge.
“I know it hurt a lot of people,” said Outterbridge. “There were a lot of people in Greenville, both black and white, that liked the architecture of Sycamore Hill Church and the music that came out of that church was such beautiful music.”
The church would move to Eighth Street in 1968.
In addition to moving the church, many homes were dsplaced and sold. Many members were displaced following the city’s approval of the project.
“When they uprooted the old people, most of them died,” said Harris. “We had death, after death and that came because the older people were moved.”
The fight to maintain the church’s legacy continued over the years.
In 2016, the city created a historical marker in remembrance of the church, which is another piece to the remaining puzzle.
“We had nothing to show in Greenville about the African-American history of this Sycamore Hill Church and the downtown area,” said Outterbridge.
Longtime member Fred Outterbridge and his wife Lillian Outerbridge continued to fight for the preservation of the history of the church.
“We continued to fight not only for the blacks but also the whites of this community,” said Freddie Outterbridge. “I hope it (Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza) brings us together and what we have seen it will be beautiful.”
Greenville City Council approved the nearly $2 million project to commemorate the church in September.
The Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza is set to be the missing piece to the town’s master plan for the town common.