A historically Black church is fighting to maintain its ground in California. The First Baptist Church of Venice was once the sole place of worship for Black residents of the old Oakwood neighborhood, one of the only beachside residential areas that Black people were allowed to occupy in the early 1900s.
“The church symbolized culture, it symbolized family, it symbolized faith,” Naomi Nightingale told LA Times reporters. Nightingale is a lifetime Oakwood resident and professor for Antioch University Online.
Black people had migrated into the area to provide labor for developer Abbot Kinney who dreamed of building an attraction similar to Italy’s own city of water, Venice. First Baptist, which was built in 1910, became a home and haven for the town’s Black population.
During the 60’s and 70’s, and gentrification began to transform Oakwood and its surrounding areas, Black people were priced out of their homes and were forced to relocate elsewhere. Because of this, membership at First Baptist dropped drastically. And in 2017, the church was forced to sell its building.
The buyers, Jay Penske of Penske Media, and wife Elaine Erwin, a former Victoria’s Secret model, purchased the property for $11.8M with plans to build a mansion. Nightingale and other longtime Oakwood residents have been fighting to save the church.
The organizers have held vigils, and submitted emotional letters to city officials. In September of 2020, the City Council voted unanimously to turn the building into a historic-cultural monument.
“The church is firmly rooted in the cultural history of the community,” Councilman Mike Bonin wrote in support of the motion.
According to the LA Times, the councilman is “strongly encouraging” the owners to “work with the community to develop a plan that benefits everyone.” One idea presented is to turn the church into a community center.
Public records show that in 2020 the building was sold once again to a limited liability corporation represented by real estate broker Lee Polster. Robert Thibodeau, the architect commissioned for this project says while he was once in contact with Polster, he has not been in communication with him in over six months, and is unsure of where the remodel stands.
“We’re going to work in cooperation with the city and with what people want,” Thibodeau said. “That’s always been our intent.”
As for now, the church buildings and doors remain boarded with faded paint, and a hanging banner that reads, “Black Prayers Matter”. Let us hope that in this case, they’re heard.