City Life Museum covers history of black churches

July 15, 1991|By John Rivera

Some members of St. James Episcopal Church, the denomination's largest black congregation in Baltimore, had an opportunity yesterday to share a bit of their history with some friends from the suburbs.

They toured "Climbing Jacob's Ladder," a downtown exhibit on the history of black churches in the Eastern United States, with parishioners of an Episcopal "sister church," predominantly white Mark's-on-the-Hill in Pikesville.

As they made their way together through the Baltimore City Life Museums, they found that St. James had earned its place there as the area's oldest black Episcopal parish.

Erla McKinnon of St. James peered through the glass at a church bulletin from 1901, when the church occupied temporary quarters beforeit moved to Park Avenue and Preston Street. "Then they moved from Park Avenue to Lafayette and Arlington, where we are today," she said.

The exhibit was originally organized by the Smithsonian Institution and covered the history of the nation's black churches from the 18th century until after the Civil War. The staff of the City Life Museums supplemented this with the histories and artifacts of several Baltimore churches. They extended the scope of the exhibit to the 20th century.

As she scanned photographs of Baltimore congregations, Ms. McKinnon recognized several neighboring ones. "This is right around the corner from us, Macedonia Baptist," she said, pointing to a picture from the mid-1950s of a Queen's Rally, a fund-raising event where several"queens" and their "courts" competed to bring in the largest church offering for that day.

She moved on to the next photograph. "They have a dynamic young [minister] at Madison Presbyterian. They're doing some good things," she said.

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, now located at Druid Hill Avenue and Lanvale Street, is the Baltimore congregation most prominently featured. The exhibit includes a reed organ from the church and photographs of worship services and former pastors.

Part of the exhibit is about the role of pastors' wives. As evidence of this role, the exhibit points out that Coppin State University is named for Frances Jackson Coppin and not for her husband, the Rev. Levi Coppin of Bethel.

The exhibit focuses on the development of black churches from their beginnings as branches of white-controlled congregations to the development of independent black churches. These include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in Philadelphia in 1816, and the American Baptist Missionary Convention, which was started in 1840 after the white-controlled Baptist Church did not strongly denounce slavery.

Laura Berryman of St. Mark's-on-the-Hill stopped at a display explaining the "shout," when worshipers at camp meetings are "struck by the spirit" and begin to dance and yell in ecstasy. "I think this is interesting, because I saw that. Many years ago, when I was a child, they would have these meetings on Saturday nights."

One woman stopped and chuckled when she saw an ornate silver water pitcher, which was used by a preacher in the pulpit, recalling that it was her job to clean a similar pitcher as a young girl at the Waters African Methodist Episcopal Church on Aisquith Street.

"My father was the sexton" at Waters African Methodist Episcopal, explained Reba Taylor, who lived on the church grounds during her childhood. "We call them janitors now. And we had to do the cleaning of the church."

Ms. Taylor said the exhibit emphasizes the important social role of black churches in the life of the black community.

"This is what our young people need to know. It's good history; it's history I don't ever want to forget," said Ms. Taylor. "And if there was some way to teach this to the guys in the street, I would."

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