Orchard Street Church tells a powerful story Black congregants focus of museum

February 28, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

The newly restored Orchard Street Church, already headquarters for the Baltimore Urban League, will be the home of a new museum devoted to the city's early African-American churches and their congregations.

Members of the social services organization, which moved last fall to the restored church property at 512 Orchard St., recently approved a mission statement for the museum, planned as a second phase of construction.

It will tell "the story of black churches in Baltimore, with a special emphasis on Orchard Street Church," said Nancy Brennan, executive director of the Baltimore City Life Museums, a consultant to the league.

"There may be other preserved churches," she said. "But to the best of our research, there is no other church space that interprets the role of the African-American church in American history, and it is such a powerful story."

The project gained a new impetus last week when state officials announced an advertising campaign to promote Maryland as a travel destination for blacks who want to learn more about their cultural roots.

The idea to focus on black churches and their congregations is a response to a quandary the Baltimore Urban League faced last year as it completed its $3.7 million restoration of the 1882 landmark.

The legend was that the church property may have been a stop along the Underground Railroad, the secret network of trails and hiding spots that slaves followed to flee the South before the Civil War. An estimated 100,000 slaves traveled north to freedom between 1825 and 1860.

That aspect of the building was expected to be an important drawing card of the proposed museum. But all of the evidence uncovered during the restoration period indicated that neither the building nor the site was part of a coordinated effort to hide runaway slaves.

Ms. Brennan said the findings in no way diminish the significance of Orchard Street Church or the proposed museum.

In fact, she believes the museum can tell an even more compelling story by shifting the attention from the building to the congregants, who may have played a role in the Underground Railroad.

Locations of hiding places or other "stops" are difficult to substantiate chiefly because of the secret nature of the Underground Railroad. In addition, many of the travelers and the people who helped them could not read or write enough to leave behind any written documentation.

"The definition of the Underground Railroad in the public's mind has emphasized physical locations that people moved in or through or were led along. But what the Underground Railroad was was a symbol of coordination and planning staffed by the congregations and the ministers of the churches. . . . The fact that we're talking about a people story rather than a space story does not dishonor Orchard Street Church a bit," Ms. Brennan said.

The refurbished Orchard Street Church is actually the third church built in the area, replacing smaller ones built in 1837 and 1859.

The first reportedly was built by torchlight by slaves and freed slaves. When it opened in 1882, it was described in one newspaper as "the foremost colored house of worship in the state."

The idea that the church was a stop along the the Underground Railroad stemmed in large part from the existence of a narrow tunnel discovered in the basement of the Sunday school building just north of the main sanctuary.

The tunnel is next to a well that was on the site before the 1882 church was built, and likely was built for a nearby house. The tunnel and the well opening have been preserved in the restoration.

Ms. Brennan said there are three reasons why she believes the church was not a hiding spot:

* Site inspections by archaeologists and others indicate that the tunnel was a heating tunnel connected to a chimney at the west end of the Sunday school building. Despite rumors to the contrary, the underground passageway leads nowhere but to the chimney.

* The bricks and mortar that make up the tunnel appear to date from 1903 -- the same year the Sunday school was constructed.

* The church was an unlikely haven for slaves because of its visibility. "Would you hide slaves in the first place the authorities would look, which would be a church?" she asked. "You'd hide them in barns and attics and basements and places people wouldn't look."

Ms. Brennan said one believable aspect of the Underground Railroad speculation is the idea that many of Orchard Street Church's congregants played a role in helping slaves escape by providing food and taking them into their homes or other hiding spots. She believes that should be explored.

Within Baltimore's black community, "there is a strong oral history," she said. "With tape recorders and a good genealogy, I think we'd be able to track something down by talking to descendants. . . . The next wave of research has to be on members of the congregation."

The mission statement calls for a museum and archives that are "dedicated to the research and interpretation of the history and contemporary role of Baltimore's African-American churches in the development of the religious, economic, political and social life of the community."

An independent, not-for-profit museum board is being formed to oversee development and will soon select an operator.

CHURCH TOUR

In conjunction with Black History Month, Baltimore Heritage, a local preservation advocacy group, is sponsoring a tour of Orchard Street Church at 1 p.m. today.

The tour will be conducted by Brian Kelly of Kelly, Clayton & Mojzisek, lead restoration architect for the building. Representatives of the Guild of the Baltimore Urban League will discuss the building's importance in African-American history.

The cost is $8 per person for Baltimore Heritage members and $10 for nonmembers.

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