Expanding Orchard Street's miracle

November 09, 1992

The splendid $3.7 million restoration of Baltimore's Orchard Street Church -- which was celebrated over the weekend -- is a miracle, which makes one appreciate a remark once made by Israel's Golda Meir: "The impossible only takes longer."

Until the Baltimore Urban League decided to restore the landmark church, it was a badly vandalized shell for a decade and a half. Others had endlessly talked about restoration and raised untold thousands of dollars without any results. The Urban League finally got the wheels moving and now occupies part of the complex as its headquarters. (Many of the league's training functions will remain at Mondawmin Mall).

The Orchard Street Church was one of the earliest African Methodist Episcopal churches in Baltimore. It is therefore appropriate that its restored sanctuary will house changing historical exhibits that will document the black religious experience in America.

Such a museum does not currently exist in Baltimore, even though churches have always been one of the cornerstones of the African American community. Indeed, some of the city's leading black congregations are within walking distance of the Orchard Street complex.

Restoration of the Orchard Street Church should serve as an inspiration to those churches to redouble their efforts to stabilize and improve the neighborhood north of Druid Hill Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. For four decades before World War II, that area contained a Who's Who among Baltimore blacks, populated by lawyers, doctors and educators. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall grew up there, so did several city council members and state legislators.

In recent years, the Marble Hill Community Association has spearheaded a homeowners' effort to retake an 11-block area along Druid Hill Avenue. But while the historic district has achieved successes, much of the wider area is threatened by decay and vandalism of boarded-up houses.

The Orchard Street effort shows that renewal, however difficult, can be accomplished.

We urge Bethel A.M.E., Douglas Memorial and Union Baptist and other churches to join with the Urban League in developing new strategies for revitalizing this historic residential area. Those churches have a special responsibility because -- along with old families and speculators -- they own many of the neighborhood's houses. The Urban League has a special responsibility, too. Many of its founders -- including Dr. Furman Templeton -- were among the area's notable residents.

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