Hidden History: 155 years later, hymns of praise continue to ring through Lee Street Baptist Church

Hidden History

BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) In Bristol, Virginia, a 155-year-old church served as the hub for the black community during segregation.

It bears a new name since its creation in 1865, and has a pastor who has led the congregation for nearly six decades.

The hymns of praise continue to ring through Lee Street Baptist Church

The man in the pulpit has led the congregation for decades. His name is Dr. Willis A. Johnson, also known as Dr. W.A. Johnson.

“It was in 1961 when I came here. I came here from Virginia University in Richmond, after seven years of training,” Dr. Johnson said.

In his 59 years as pastor, the spiritual leader has become influential in the City of Bristol, across the region and in the state of Virginia. The street alongside the church even bears his name.

“It’s still the strongest church in the area,” Dr. Johnson said. “Great church, great people. I would say a great pastor but I’ll let somebody else say that,” he laughed.

Geneva Brown said, “He’s part of not only the church family but each individual person in the congregation.”

The place of worship was created after slavery was abolished, in 1865, initially called the “Anglo-African Baptist Church”.

“It was started by slaves — ex-slaves. When they were set free, in 1865, the first thing they did was got the church,” Dr. Johnson said. “They had to have a church, they had to have schools for their children. They were on their own.”

It was originally located in the downtown area, but Dr. Johnson decided to change its location.

“It’s one little church sitting there on the street, with no parking and we had about 300 members.”

The church and its pastor cherishes another piece of its ministry: the gospel choir, who use their God-given talent for the glory of God.

“The choir.. that was one of the famous choirs in the area,” Dr. Johnson said.

Brown said, “When your pastor brings up the word, you have to carry yourself in the way God wants you to be.”

President of the gospel choir, Geneva Brown, has been a part of the Lee Street choir – since she was five.

“This is my family church,” Brown said. “It’s known as the greater Lee Street Baptist Church and it has been that.”

The church follows Dr. Johnson’s motto of “reaching people and touching lives.”

“Things are good. Things are strong. We’ve got a good church,” Dr. Johnson said.

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