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Memphis Baptist Congress elects first woman president of Christian Education

Annetta A. Hamilton was “born and bred” in Memphis. 

In fact, she was born at 1547 Barton Street, her childhood home in South Memphis. 

She made history this past Sunday (Jan. 24) by becoming the first woman to preside over the Memphis Baptist Congress’ Christian Education Department.

“I started going to Congress when I was 10 years old,” said Hamilton. “I was a part of the Congress Youth Fellowship. We had opportunities to present in front of the organization, and I guess certain ones saw something in me as I grew up. When there was Baptist Training Union, we had Baptist Young People’s Union.”

Hamilton grew up in Salem Gilfield Baptist Church. As a retired legacy Memphis City Schools teacher, gravitating toward Christian Education seemed a natural affinity for her.

“I graduated from LeMoyne-Owen College in 1968,” said Hamilton. “I had already signed my teaching contract. I always taught younger children, the first 19 years in a second-grade classroom, and the remainder of her 42 years with first-graders.

“At church, I taught the intermediate class, the teenagers in middle school. People were always quitting that position. So, the pastor asked if I would teach them, and I accepted.”

Hamilton began her Christian education career as a teenager when Mrs. M. E. Fisher, a Southern Baptist member, would take a group of teens all over the city to teach Vacation Bible School each summer, Hamilton said.

Almost no one was surprised when the gavel passed to Hamilton in a meeting of the Congress this weekend. 

Since its inception in 1936, the Memphis Baptist Congress has met on the third Sunday of each month. It is an organization comprise of some 50 Baptist member churches throughout the city of Memphis.

“Early in my teaching career, I was asked to serve the Congress as the announcement clerk,” Hamilton recalls. “She was promoted to assistant secretary, and then, secretary.

“Twelve years ago, Mrs. Gary L. Gossett, a member of St. John Baptist Church-Vance, said at a meeting of the Congress, ‘I know that the presidency is always held by men, but I want to nominate Annetta Hamilton for the post of third vice president.’ You see, it was vacant at the time.”

Hamilton won the vote and served four years in the position. She was then elected to the second vice president’s position. After four years, she moved to the first-vice- president’s seat. That was in 2016. Hamilton was heir-apparent to the top post, and this was her year.

Jerry D. Webster, outgoing president of the Memphis Baptist Congress of Christian Education, presents the gavel to Annetta A. Hamilton. Looking on are First Vice President Shirley Reed, Second Vice President Joseph Hunt and Third Vice President Charlie Scates. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

“We are just a loving group of Christians,” said Hamilton. “Some are missionary Baptist churches, and some are independent Baptist churches. The missionary Baptist churches were started by white missionaries. But the independent churches were started by black Baptist believers. Our first pastor was Rev. Africa Bailey, a sergeant in the Union Army.”

According to Salem Gilfield’s church history, the original Salem Church was founded in a brush arbor with a sawdust floor in late 1865. By 1867, Salem’s congregation had grown to 242 members and they were worshiping in a solid frame building at the corner of Carolina and Tennessee Streets. 

In 1883, a faction of the Salem congregation split from the original one and founded Gilfield Baptist Church. In 1940, the two churches were reunited, becoming Salem Gilfield.  

Hamilton taught her entire professional career at Sharp Elementary School. She was one of two African-American faculty members who integrated Sharp because of a 1968 court-ordered action, filed and won by the NAACP.

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