Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church was the first African-American church in the city of Memphis under the doctrine of the Disciples of Christ (DOC). In 1921, led by Dr. Joseph Edison Walker, 11 members signed the roll as founding members. Those visionaries were Dr. Joseph and Mrs. Lelia Edison Walker, and their children, Johnetta and A. Maceo Walker.
Ernest E. Bright, Amos Keys, Dr. W.H. Luster, Mark W. Bonner, M.H. Winn, Brother Smiter and Miss Roxie Crawford rounded out this band of faithful visionaries. The Tennessee State Evangelist for Blacks, Elder W.P. Martin, served as acting pastor from the summer of 1921 until the end of that year. The membership had increased to 28 souls.
Elder Blair Theodore Hunt, a prominent educator, civic leader and clergyman, became the Senior Pastor in December 1921.
We hold our leaders (past and present) in high esteem: Elder W.P. Martin (1921), Elder Blair T. Hunt (1921-1973), Elder Lee E. Koonce (1973-1978), Dr. Alvin O. Jackson (1979-1997), Rev. Thomas L. Murray (Interim 1998-1999), Dr. Frank A. Thomas (1999-2012), Rev. A. Denise Bell (Interim 2012-2013), and the Rev. Dr. J. Lawrence Turner (2013-Present).
A Time to Plant
Blair T. Hunt became the pastor in December 1921, he served as principal of Booker T. Washington High School, the first black high school in the city of Memphis. At the height of his pastorate the congregation had grown to a participating membership of about 800.
The original church building was located at 974-978 Mississippi Boulevard, in the heart of South Memphis. At that time the church campus included a sanctuary and an educational building. In 1938 the original church building was remodeled to a brick structure including a sanctuary, choir stand, pulpit, choir room, baptistery and pastor’s study. The congregation soon outgrew this facility.
By 1958 a completely new air conditioned sanctuary was built, costing $150,000. It was said to be the first air-conditioned sanctuary built by a Black congregation in Tennessee.
A Time to Build
After serving 52 years, Elder Blair T. Hunt retired and became Pastor Emeritus in 1973.
In March 1973 Elder Lee Edward Koonce of Xenia, Ohio became Pastor and served until June, 1978.
Elder Victor Brooks served as Interim Pastor and our dedicated lay leaders continued God’s work for about one year. In June 1979 Alvin O’neal Jackson accepted the call to be our pastor. Pastor Jackson’s first sermon was titled “Your Arms are Too Short to Box with God” taken from Jonah 1. That September marked the beginning of our first Radio Ministry broadcasts.
October 1979 brought a disastrous fire that completely destroyed the educational building which resulted in extensive damage to the sanctuary. The congregation mobilized “Project Resurrection” to rebuild, improve, and expand the church facilities with a $500,000 restoration program. Sunday worship services were held at Longview Heights Seventh Day Adventist Church.
A Time to Move
We returned to our completely new and enlarged J.E. Walker Educational and Administrative Building and sanctuary, with beautiful stained glass windows. Along with the radio ministry and expanded social action services, membership grew to such proportions that it soon became apparent that larger accommodations were required.
On August 26,1984 Mississippi Boulevard moved from the inner city to the Whitehaven community to 250 East Raines Road. The facilities had many classrooms, a large administrative complex, a gymnasium, space for a daycare center, a 1700 seat sanctuary, 100 seat choir stand, a church parlor, two kitchens, two rental houses and a large parking lot, all for approximately $1.8 million.
The music ministry was augmented by enlisting a full time Minister of Music, Dr. Leo H. Davis, Jr., who took the ministry to new heights with presentations which glorified God through a colorful combination of anthems, spirituals, hymns, gospel music and dance.
In 1988 Mississippi Boulevard continued to expand it’s ministry to the community through establishing Manna Outreach.
Soon two Sunday worship services were required. The building was no longer adequate and parking was a major problem. A Long Range Planning Committee was organized and, after doing a feasibility study, it was determined that another move was necessary.
A Time to Grow
The visionary leadership of Pastor Jackson combined with the business acumen of key laity resulted in the congregation moving to 70 North Bellevue on October 24, 1992 putting Mississippi Boulevard back into the inner city. Our first worship service in our new facility was held on Sunday, October 25, 1992 and we began our quest to "Claim the City for Christ."
The assets of these premises included 20.16 acres and 15 buildings. Special features which serve the needs of God's people were the large sanctuary, the A. Maceo Walker Family Life Center and the Laura Cade Nursery. With 221 classrooms, there was ample space for Bible Study and additional space to actualize the Pastor's dream of an expanded Day Care Center to a Christian Academy.
This season also saw expanded efforts by the church to minister to the Greater Memphis Area. In 1995, fifty families from The BLVD helped establish the Community of Faith Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Leadership was provided by Melvyn Gross.
The Nehemiah Housing Project sponsored by the Shelby County InterFaith Association, became an actuality with the donation of 27 acres of land given by the church. This project built much needed homes in the Whitehaven area of the city.
February 1997 marked the premiere of “Umoja”, an African American celebration of unity. It has become a much anticipated celebration attended by many Memphians.
1997 also marked the end of an era, as Alvin O’Neal Jackson, who led the congregation as a caring, charismatic, and visionary Senior Pastor, left to serve God’s vineyard in our nation’s capital, accepting a call to serve the National City Christian Church.
After a thorough search, Dr. Frank Anthony Thomas was called to serve as Senior Pastor in 1999. Pastor Thomas and his family relocated to Memphis from New Faith Baptist Church in Chicago, IL.
A Time to Serve
Continuing it’s legacy of church planting, The BLVD helped establish New Direction Christian Church in 2001 with some sixty families from The BLVD serving as the core group. The church was launched in the Hickory Hill area and Dr. Stacy L. Spencer served as Pastor/Developer.
2001 also saw the opening of the Lettie L. Poston Senior Housing Development, a cooperative initiative of the National Benevolent Association and Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church. It is located on our Midtown campus and provides 50 one-bedroom apartments with full kitchens and baths, and ample closet and storage space.
With Pastor Thomas’ vision of church expansion, a second location was born in the east area of Shelby County in 2009. The purpose of the second location was to provide a religious experience that would increase discipleship, evangelism and stewardship while decreasing absenteeism. In September, what was then known as “The BLVD East” became a reality. This new location met at the Clark Opera Memphis Center and Southwind High School until finding a permanent home on E. Shelby Drive.
On Sunday, July 3, 2012, after 13 years of pastoring The BLVD, Dr. Frank Anthony Thomas announced his retirement and explained a transition plan for the next Senior Pastor.
During this time of transition Reverend A. Denise Bell served as Interim Senior Pastor.
A Time to Lead
In March 2013 the church welcomed Dr. J. Lawrence Turner as Senior Pastor.
Pastor Turner, a Nashville native returned to his home state from the Community Baptist Church located in New Haven, Connecticut.
In 2015, under Pastor Turner’s leadership “The BLVD East” found a permanent home at 8220 E. Shelby Drive, joining our Midtown location as the Southwind Campus, fueling The BLVD’s continued growth in membership and a deeper commitment to discipleship.
Pastor Turner’s leadership has reignited The BLVD’s commitment to social justice by emphasizing education among our youth, feeding, healing, and housing the underserved, and helping the marginalized become viable members of our community, making The BLVD the city’s church.
Pastor Turner worked with city leaders to emphasize the importance of “Day One” for children and youth to attend school and be counted for federal funding to support our schools, leading the charge for students to arrive on the first day of classes with all necessary school supplies.
Pastor Turner has also spearheaded a number of strategic partnerships with educational organizations across Memphis including the Gestalt Chartered School System, M.A.S.E., and the Jesse Mahan Daycare Center. These partnerships help The BLVD live out its mission to take the lead in providing quality education for our children and youth.
The BLVD’s other strategic partnerships in service to the Greater Memphis Area include the National Civil Rights Museum, Church Health, the Mid-South Food Bank, and the City of Memphis Youth Services.
As a the founder and president of the Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis, and founding partner of the Memphis Christian Pastor’s Network, Pastor Turner and The BLVD are taking the lead in organizing local congregations to push for equitable policy changes in policing, access to healthcare, food justice, and educational reform in the Greater Memphis area.
The next chapter of the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church is still being written but we are excited to proclaim that with God’s guidance, “Great Things Are Still Happening At The BLVD!”