City's Union Baptist Church named historic landmark

Church's role is recognized as historic African-American congregation

  • A crowd gathers to observe the landmark celebration at Union Baptist Church.
A crowd gathers to observe the landmark celebration at Union… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
October 03, 2010|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

Union Baptist Church, built on the rectitude of a former slave and out of the ashes of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in ceremonies Sunday that included the unveiling of a plaque on the Druid Hill Avenue building.

Gay Vietzke of the National Park Service, who spoke to parishioners in the sanctuary, said that not only did the Victorian Gothic architecture of William J. Beardsley, who rebuilt much of Baltimore after the fire, deserve recognition, but the historic stature of the Rev. Dr. Harvey Johnson, who presided over the church for 50 years, and the role of the church in civil rights issues dating from the Civil War also made it worthy of the honor.

The case put before the U.S. Interior Department on behalf of the church was easy to make thanks to the church's large and meticulous archives, and much of that work is attributed to the careful record-keeping of Baltimore lawyer A.S. Koger and his mid-20th-century writings about the history of African-American Baptists in Maryland.

"We wanted to acknowledge the tremendous legacy of our church," said the Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. "But the work of A.S. Koger, who chronicled the life and history of this church, formalized the process."

Those records reveal, among other historical tidbits, that the 158-year-old African-American church had 34 Sunday school students in 1852, when it was founded, and that donations that year totaled $1.40.

But under the dynamic stewardship of Johnson, who was pastor from 1873 to 1923, those numbers quickly grew to 1,200 Sunday school students, which included adults, and an annual collection of $500.

Also as a result of Johnson's leadership, the Union Baptist church at its current location was the first Baptist church to be built by and for African-Americans, parishioners were told during the services.

Johnson, who was a slave until adulthood and only freed at the conclusion of the Civil War, chafed at the white Baptist leadership, which owned the places where African-American Baptists worshiped, chose their pastors and paid them. As a result, Union Baptist became the first independent African-American Baptist church in Maryland.

But Johnson did not stop there, according the historical notes presented by Maryland state Sen. Delores Kelley from the pulpit. Johnson also worked tirelessly for parity for African-Americans in areas such as access to railroad cars and access to the legal profession.

Even after the retirement of the great pastor, the church continued to work for social justice during the critical years of the Civil Rights movement.

Today, Union Baptist is home to a Cyber Center, built next to the church for the use of neighbors and parishioners, and a Head Start Center, which was one of the first in the country.

Marlowe Garnes, whose great-grandfather owned furniture stores and was a member of the church, said Union Baptist can trace its enduring strength to the congregation, long made up of the businessmen, tradesmen and educators in the African-American community that formed after the Civil War.

"My family has been in this church for 142 years," he said. "I've been here 51 years and I'm a youngster."

A founding member of the Archive and Artifacts Ministry of the church, he said many of its members no longer live in the West Baltimore neighborhood but come from as far away as he does — Charles Town, W.Va., where he moved when he retired from the Maryland State Department of Education.

That's the significance of the National Historic designation, he said, "It will keep us here. No matter what the government or the neighborhood decides to do, we will be here. And people will remember us."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

A story in Monday's paper gave the incorrect historic designation for Union Baptist Church. The church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Sun regrets the error.


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