Filed Under Worship

Central Baptist Church

Faith and Activism in the Hill

Throughout the 111 years that Central Baptist Church has stood at 2200 Wylie Avenue, it has offered the residents of the Hill District a strong Black religious presence in the neighborhood which has uplifted the whole community. Though the church has had its struggles over the decades, the devoted leaders which have pastored it have continually made Central Baptist into a church body which serves the Hill both socially and spiritually. Formed in 1891, Central Baptist purchased its building on the corner of Kirkpatrick and Wylie in 1912, and has stayed there ever since. The church’s first years were uneventful until it began experiencing severe financial difficulties during the tenure of its sixth pastor, Dr. Rev. C.A. Ward, likely due to the economic hardships brought to the Hill by the Great Depression. The situation was made even worse when the church building caught fire from unknown causes in 1934, which required significant efforts to rebuild. According to one Courier article, the church’s debts were so large in the late thirties that they were “‘choking’ the life and spirit” from its congregation. Though Rev. Ward attempted to resign, the church board decided against it, and Central Baptist did not receive a new pastor until the reverend passed away in 1937.

His successor, Rev. Cornell E. Talley, was one of the most beloved pastors the church ever had. A relatively young man for his trade at just 31 years old, Talley arrived from Indianapolis with his wife and eight month old son, and preached his first sermon at Central Baptist in 1938. Within just three years, he tripled the church’s attendance from 532 regular members to 1,500, and he not only managed to pay off all of Central Baptist’s debts, but increased the church’s savings to $5,000.

This kind of growth was unheard of for the church previously, but the church’s rocky history seemed not to bother Rev. Talley. He was known for his motto, “Forgetting those things which were behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before.” Under his leadership this became the guiding vision behind Central Baptist, inspiring their participation in the struggle for Black freedoms.

The church at this time took an active role in the civil rights movement, hosting several NAACP rallies in support of activists in the South and at home. They even hosted NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall in 1950, just a few years before his landmark victory in Brown v. Board and his historic tenure as the first African American Supreme Court Justice.

Dr. Martin Luther King came to visit on several occasions, leading services of worship at the church as well as delivering his “A Knock at Midnight” speech there. When Rev. Talley took a position with another church in 1961, Dr. King was even considered as a candidate in the church’s search for a new pastor.

Talley's resignation was vigorously protested by many of the congregation’s members, a testament to how much he was cherished as the pastor there. He was succeeded by Dr. Isaac Green, who led Central Baptist from 1963 to 1994, and saw the church through endeavors like their first televised services and the creation of the Central Baptist Academy. The church’s current pastor, Rev. Victor Grigsby, has continued Central Baptist’s legacy of community service and activism, even holding a rally to support former President Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008.


Congregation of Central Baptist The congregation of the Central Baptist Church stands during a service. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1950-1970
Construction of Central Baptist Workers on the site of the future Central Baptist Church, working on exterior construction. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1942-1949
Reverend Cornell Talley A portrait of Reverend Cornell Talley, who served Central Baptist from 1938 to 1961. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1950-1961
Reverend Cornell Talley and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rev. Talley shakes hands with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at one of Central Baptist's pulpits. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1958


2200 Wylie Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Nolan Cowan, “Central Baptist Church,” Hill District Digital History, accessed June 17, 2024,