Residents of Trinity Park consisted mainly of professionals and included Dr. Carl Norris, a dentist who lived at 401 Watts Street in 1923 with his wife Louise and their young daughters. On January 14, 1923, he helped organize a meeting at Watts Street School to discuss the establishment of a neighborhood church for Trinity Park. At that time, the closest Baptist churches were West Durham Baptist Church (now Greystone), which was then located on Alexander Avenue, on a site now occupied by a portion of Duke’s Central Campus apartments, and Temple Baptist Church in the West End neighborhood just outside of downtown. Others present at the meeting were Judge W. H. Young, who served as the committee chairperson and lived at 701 Watts Street, and J. M. Cheek, a resident of Demerius Street, who was elected secretary of the nascent congregation.
On March 4, 1923, the group held a formal organizational meeting where 126 individuals pledged themselves to the covenant of the church. Also, in this early period, the members elected eight deacons: J. S. Eubanks, Dr. William J. H. Cotton, F. R. Clark, Dr. E. H. Bowling, E. C. Johnson, J. T. Salmon, D. C. May, and Dr. Norris, who was named chair of the deacons. The group, all residents of Trinity Park, decided on a name for the new congregation: Watts Street Baptist Church. Later, the deacons decreed the 157 individuals who had applied by letter from their home churches to membership at the new church before March 17, 1923, would be considered charter members of the new church.
Soon after the organizational meeting, two church members purchased land at the corner of Watts Street and Urban Avenue. In 1923, the church body charged J. T. Salmon and Connie H. Shipp, both charter members, to lead the effort to erect a building. They hired prominent Lynchburg, Virginia, architect Stanhope S. Johnson, who also designed the 1924 Washington Duke Hotel in downtown Durham (demolished in 1975). Salmon and Shipp owned Consolidated Construction Company, a building contracting firm that constructed the church. While the church was being built, members met at Watts Street School. When the church basement was completed, they began meeting in that space as work continued on the sanctuary. Even before builders finished the church, Watts Street called its first pastor, Rev. Howard Weeks, in September 1923. The building—constructed of Waynesville blue granite and designed in the English Gothic Revival style—formally opened on April 5, 1925.
The highlights of Howard Weeks’ tenure included the completion of the church, a growth in membership from 157 to 237, and the establishment of a Boy Scout troop that continues its affiliation with Watts Street. However, his time as pastor proved tumultuous, and in November 1925, he resigned after Dr. Norris, chair of the deacons, made a motion to declare the pulpit vacant.
C. Sylvester Green
Sylvester Green, a teacher by training and the son of one of the ministers who helped start the church, served as pastor from 1926 to 1932. He proved popular, starting the church newsletter and a Vacation Bible School for neighborhood children and initiating the church directory. However, financial problems associated with the church’s construction plagued his time at Watts Street. The final costs for the building were double the original estimates. In late 1926, five members each gave $4,000 to pay the $30,000 worth of notes above and beyond the mortgage. Green also asked and received the financial assistance of Benjamin N. Duke, who was assured by the pastor that the church would serve the surrounding community as well as Duke University students. But during the Great Depression, the church’s financial woes escalated, as it was unable to pay the monthly mortgage. After he left Watts Street, Green pastored elsewhere, but then earned a Ph.D. from Duke and later became editor of the Durham Morning Herald.
J.T. Riddick, who assumed the pastorate in 1932, became known for holding revivals that bolstered church membership. He also started the church library by donating about 100 of his own books. Like his predecessor, financial struggles continued during Riddick’s tenure, a situation not helped by the Great Depression. In a bold move in 1934, five families mortgaged their own houses, while another mortgaged a business, to save the church from foreclosure. Under Riddick, the church paid off the mortgage in 1935, a major accomplishment for a congregation that struggled financially for an extended period. Upon his death in 1938, Watts Street dedicated a stained glass window in the sanctuary to Riddick.
Dr. Owen Herring assumed the pastorate in 1939 and served until 1946, a period that included World War II. With soldiers from Camp Butner attending services at Watts Street and new families moving to Durham seeking a church home, a shift in membership occurred during this period, as the church’s old guard, including charter members, relinquished their leadership positions to a new generation. In essence, Watts Street went from a neighborhood church with membership focused in Trinity Park, to one that saw its mission as reaching out to the greater Durham community and beyond. Herring left his ministry at Watts Street when he accepted a position at Wake Forest College’s Department of Religion in 1946.
Warren Carr, whose tenure spanned 1946 to 1964, led the transformation of Watts Street Baptist Church from a strictly Southern Baptist congregation into the innovative, liberal, and open institution that it remains today. He doubled membership by preaching against segregation and brought a strong, intellectually challenging approach to theology that appealed to those associated with Duke University. Chief among his controversial stances was that immersion was not necessary for membership for those already baptized and his opposition to a literal interpretation of the Bible. In 1959, a committee, working with Carr and Herbert C. Bradshaw, editor of the Durham Morning Herald, revised the church covenant, a document that remained in effect until 1997. Under Carr, the first woman minister in the Southern Baptist Convention, Addie Davis, was ordained in 1964. The church’s physical plant expanded under Carr, undoubtedly due to congregational growth. In the early 1950s, the large north section of the rear educational wing was built following the design of architect Marion Ham, a church member. Later in the 1950s, the church purchased the parcel north of the sanctuary that now serves as the main parking lot.
In 1964, Bob McClernon replaced Carr, who accepted a position at Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem. Increased progressivism marked McClernon’s tenure. During his pastorate, Watts Street accepted baptized members without immersion, transferred more authority and responsibility from the deaconate to the wider congregation, and reached out to the needy in Durham through missions. Delores Atkins became the first female member of the Diaconate in 1966, followed soon thereafter by Beth Upchurch. Watts Street Church affiliated with the American Baptist Convention and became one of the original members of the American Baptist Churches of the South, which was composed primarily of black congregations. Notably during McClernon’s time at Watts Street, lay leaders became actively involved in worship services, and in 1975, deacons were each assigned a group of church members for whom they would care. Under his leadership, church-wide business meetings started and administrative affairs became more transparent. In 1969, the church installed the Austin organ and the baptism pool was placed in the space to the left of the chancel. The Moravian Lovefeast and the Chrismon project, in which women of the church make handmade decorations for the sanctuary Christmas tree, were initiated in 1973. The first annual church bazaar started in November 1977. A major shift in staffing occurred in 1979 when Richard Chorley became the Minister of Christian Education, replacing a series of part-time or short-term appointees. Other important events that occurred during the McClernon years were the first All Ages Beach Retreat in 1982, and in the mid-1980s, Watts Street church members helped to found the Durham chapter of Habitat for Humanity. However, perhaps McClernon’s greatest legacy remains the significant expansion in local missions, a move that earned Watts Street a reputation as the church in Durham most focused on outreach to the poor and needy. After 22 years as pastor, McClernon left Watts Street in 1987 to become a social worker at John Umstead State Hospital.
Mel Williams, Jr.
In 1988, Watts Street called Mel Williams Jr. as pastor, a move that enhanced congregational activism in the church. Williams increased lay members’ participation in worship and he supported changing to the church council form of governance, thereby releasing deacons to provide pastoral care as their sole function. In 1989, the church joined the Southern Baptist Alliance. The church started overseas missions in Russia and El Salvador and founded One World Market, a retail concern that helps third-world artisans profit from the products they create. Watts Street’s involvement in Durham intensified during Williams’ tenure. He served as president of Durham Congregations in Action in 1991-1992; was the cofounder of Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham in 1992; led the creation of the Walltown “Neighbor to Neighbor” mission in 1995; and in 2004 cofounded End Poverty Durham. He spoke out against war and promoted the merger of predominantly white county schools with primarily black city schools. For five years, Williams chaired the Committee on Baptist Studies at Duke University, which later became the Baptist House of Studies, a role that created a bond between the Divinity School at Duke and the church. Under his leadership, Watts Street adopted a new covenant that reflected its mission spirit and the inclusion of those with differing views. Williams’ personal warmth and proclivity for breaking into song in the middle of his sermons further endeared him to the congregation.
Williams’ time at Watts Street included some controversies. In 1998, the church severed its ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, and in 2004, the congregation voted to leave the Baptist State Convention. In 2009, the congregation voted to join the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB), a move that signaled the church’s embracing of gays and lesbians but alienated some more conservative members.
The staff expanded under Williams’ tenure: in 1992, Watts Street called Diane Hill as part-time Minister with Children and Their Families. In 2003, following Dick Chorley’s retirement, Hill became Minister with Adults and Kelly Sasser joined the staff as the first professional Minister with Children, Youth, and Their Families, a position that had previously been held on a temporary basis by divinity students. Along with updates to the historic building during the Williams’ era, in 1994, John Cheek and his brother Charles Cheek established the Maude Wall Cheek Memorial Garden on the north side of the sanctuary in honor of their mother, a charter member.
After a ministry focused on building pastoral relationships with members and creating a vital and caring community while offering meaningful worship, Williams retired on March 4, 2012.
In May 2012, the church contracted with the Center for Congregational Health to secure an intentional interim minister. That same month, Gene Derryberry, a certified Interim Transition Specialist, arrived to shepherd the congregation through the transition to a new senior minister. He coached the 14-member Transition Team as they led the congregation in creating profiles for the church and senior pastor.
The Transition Team identified personal spiritual growth as a long term congregational goal, along with a renewed emphasis on pastoral care while maintaining Watts Street’s commitment to doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly in Durham’s many communities and beyond. With that profile in mind, a ten-member search committee was appointed in April of 2013. It conducted a national search that led it to Dorisanne Cooper, who was serving as senior minister of Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas. Both Dorisanne and the search committee engaged in a process of intense discernment, and in April, 2014, Watts Street issued a call to Dorisanne. Her service as Senior Minister began on July 1, 2014.
Dorisanne brought with her a preaching style that is scholarly and relevant and that explores both Biblical texts and contemporary issues. Her personal warmth and compassion (and sense of humor) is immediately apparent in initial encounters and in pastoral care in crises. She also brought a deep commitment to social justice and inclusion in the church of all who proclaim Jesus as Lord.
It is appropriate that in 2014, fifty years after Watts Street ordained Addie Davis to the parish ministry, Dorisanne, the best fit for the church, also happened to be female. She is the church’s first female senior minister.
A church’s history is constantly being written, and Watts Street Baptist Church’s and Dorisanne’s are continuing to unfold as Watts Street Baptist Church remains a vibrant, involved, and progressive congregation that continues to grow and thrive.
Watts Street Baptist Church is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.