In this second part of And They're Off we look at the role that the racing industry played in establishing the Sheepshead Bay African-American community and the First Baptist Church of Sheepshead Bay.
The Brighton Beach Race Track opened in 1874. Occupying land between Ocean Avenue and Avenue U, the Sheepshead Bay Race Track began operating in 1884. With the addition of the Coney Island Race Track in 1885, Brooklyn became the premier spot for horse racing in the country. These three new and successful enterprises needed workers, and there was plenty to be done. Workers were needed to groom, ride and train the horses, clean the stables, and to work in the new hotels catering to the visitors. They came from around the world and across the country. One group that would come in search of employment, and stay to establish a community in Sheepshead Bay were African-Americans (one generation from slavery) from the southern states--especially Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas.
One of these newcomers was Maria J. Fisher. Born in Virginia, Maria came to Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay, where, from 1885, she sold pies at the Brighton Beach Race Track with her two daughters. Being an intensely spiritual person, she would often be called upon by the superintendent of the race track, Frank Clark, to visit the sick or bereaved. Many workers had left family and friends in the South and had no one to care for them. Mother Fisher (as she was beginning to be called) recognized the need for a Baptist church in that area. Some residents had been traveling to Concord Baptist Church in downtown Brooklyn but the commute was long and tiring. In the spring of 1899 a group of church members were given permission to establish a Baptist church in Sheepshead Bay.
May 10th, 1899,
To the First Baptist Mission of Sheepshead Bay, Dear Bretheren,
This is to certify that the following named Bretheren and Sisters on their own request, has been granted a joint letter of dismission from the above named church for the purpose to organize and to assist to organize a Baptist Mission in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y.
Reverend George O. Dixon, Bro. Joseph Braxton, Sisters Mary Woods, Jessie Bogart, Annie Johnson, Mary Johnson, Bertha Green, Ida Shaw - May God Bless the union, this our prayer. Done by the Concord Baptist Church, Friday evening May 10th, 1899 William T. Dixon, Pastor
Selected to lead the new church was the brother of William T. Dixon, Reverend George O. Dixon.
Using an icebox for a pulpit, they began holding services at the corner of Avenue X and East 15th Street, as well as at Mother Fisher's home and the homes of other parishioners. Frank Clark even donated 50 chairs. Realizing that the fledgling congregation needed a permanent structure, in the winter of '99 Fisher along with Sister Mary Woods approached the owner of the race track, William Engeman. Telling him "We have no church for our fold in Sheepshead Bay," she began to speak about the spiritual needs of the African-American community. When asked how much she had for a downpayment, and how much more she would need, she replied, "We haven't any money, but as we see it, the Lord has so wonderfully blessed you with all that ground on 15th Street; we ask you in the name of the Lord to give us two lots." His reply, after recovering from shock, was to go into his office. On returning he told them, "If the Lord sent you out this cold morning, I guess I have to see what I can do." Soon after, Maria Fisher received a letter giving the congregation the land at 2349 East 15th Street. The one-story and basement church would be constructed for a cost of $2,870.00 by Theodore McKane, contractor. Second-hand bricks were donated for the foundation, but they had to be transported. Undeterred, Mother Fisher borrowed a wheelbarrow and carted the initial load to the site herself.
Click on the article to see how the church opening was covered in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The racing industry in this section of Brooklyn died in the early 1900's. Mother Maria Fisher passed away in 1930. But their legacy, born from the intersection of commerce, migration and religion lives on in the First Baptist Church of Sheepshead Bay. The church has grown and prospered througout the years, and on May 16th, 2009, a portion of East 15th Street was renamed Mother Maria J. Fisher Way, in her honor. The celebrations continued with the church celebrating its 110th anniversary the next day.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Walsh/Forgotten New York
Carrying on the work of preserving the church's legacy for future generations is church historian Donald Brown. Mr Brown, himself the descendent of race track workers, has continued the work of his mother, Sister Florence Brown, church clerk, whose records he so generously shared with us.
The First Baptist Church of Sheepshead Bay