Journey of perseverance

Community: First Baptist Church of Elkridge, which has a rich history as Howard County's oldest black church, is marking its 156th anniversary.

February 22, 1999|By Jamal E. Watson | Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF

First Baptist Church of Elkridge has survived slavery, civil rights turmoil and an arsonist's devastating attack, and through it all there's been a man named Simms.

First was Daniel Simms, a deacon responsible for assisting the church's first pastor, Zachary Taylor, in recruiting and welcoming newly freed black slaves from the area into the church, which is celebrating its 156th anniversary next month.

Three successive generations of Simms family members served as deacons, delivering sermons when the pastor was unavailable. Then, 40 years ago, Monroe S. Simms became minister of the tiny brick church, which sits atop a hill on Paradise Avenue, east of U.S. 1.

"God has been good to First Baptist Church," Simms proclaims from the pulpit on a recent Sunday, his deep, melodious voice echoing through the congregation. Dozens of church members standing in the pews send "Amens" and "Hallelujahs" back his way.

It doesn't take much to get Simms excited about Howard County's oldest black church, a haven for area blacks since its founding in 1843.

"The Lord has brought us from a mighty long way," Simms tells his congregation in a fiery tone, stretching his long arms toward the ceiling while moving his wide body across the pulpit in rhythm with the organ.

"I was 10 years old when I joined the church and I started preaching when I was 16," Simms, 64, says in an interview. "My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were all active members. This is a family church."

Over time, the church grew into more than just a place of worship. It became the headquarters for social activities for Elkridge blacks and was a place where they could gather to register blacks to vote, and hold meetings on how to fight the legacy of white supremacy.

"The church has served so many functions," said Mary Mundell, 77, direct descendant of one of the founders, Joseph Albert Williams. "Everyone in the community knew the church and the pastor and would come here even if they weren't members. It was just an important part of the community."

Mundell has attended the church for 66 years. Her nine children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren are members.

The church began with a gift from John, Mary and Andrew Ellicott, of the Ellicott mill family that settled in Howard County in the 1700s. They deeded the property -- previously an old soldiers hospital -- to the burgeoning black population for the creation of a house of worship.

"The Ellicotts thought it was important to create a church exclusively for free and enslaved blacks -- a place that they could go to on Sundays," said local historian Beulah Buckner, who is writing a book tracing the history of blacks in Howard County. "When the property was deeded over to the blacks, slavery still existed in Maryland. The Ellicotts took a big risk by giving the property over to blacks."

In 1860, 87,189 slaves were among Maryland's population of 687,049. About 9,820 slaves lived in Anne Arundel County -- which included what is now known as Howard County.

Arson destroys building

A century after the end of the Civil War, at the height of the civil rights movement in September 1965, the activist church came to the attention of Baltimore resident Ernest James Smith Jr. A white man, he set a fire that destroyed the building, and was convicted of the crime and sentenced to five years in the Maryland Penitentiary.

The church burning further strained relations between blacks and whites in the area. During Smith's trial, Howard County police officers stood at the front of the courthouse ready to respond in case race riots erupted. Simms cautioned his congregation not to react violently.

"I was so glad when they caught that man and arrested him," said Dorothy Richardson, 83, Simms' aunt and a native of Elkridge who attends the church. Richardson watched from her house on Race Road a few blocks away as the church burned to ashes.

Throughout the '60s, blacks and whites in Elkridge lived in two distinct worlds: separate schools, playgrounds and houses of worship. But in the wake of the fire, the predominantly white Grace Episcopal Church in Elkridge opened its doors to the devastated First Baptist community. Simms and his congregation held their services in the church Sunday afternoons until enough money was raised to repair the damage.

By 1967, the congregation was back in its rebuilt church, where it has been praising God since. The church has 156 active members, almost double the church population several decades ago. In recent years, several white members have joined the predominantly black church.

"This is an outreach church," Simms said. "We try to reach beyond our community doors and make everyone feel welcome."

As Simms prepares to lead a recent Wednesday night Bible study session, the door to his study remains open. The smell of fried chicken, collard greens, mashed potatoes and biscuits being cooked on the church's kitchen stove by a few parishioners finds its way inside his tiny office.

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