A Baltimore church grapples with its racist past
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You’d never know it just walking by 1834 McCulloh St. There’s no plaque or marker. But the three-story, red brick row house was the site of a dark chapter in this country’s history. In May 1910, George McMechen, a prominent Black lawyer, moved his family into the house on what was then an all-white block in west Baltimore.
“By his own account, the first night that he moved in here, he had rocks thrown through his windows, and the neighbors made it very difficult for him to live here,” said Grey Maggiano, rector of nearby Memorial Episcopal Church.
McMechen had crossed an invisible line separating Black and white Baltimore.
“This really set off a firestorm among white Baltimoreans as they tried to keep their neighborhoods free of what they termed the ‘Negro Invasion,’” Maggiano said.
They did that by forming “protective” associations. One of them, the Mount Royal Protective Association, held its meetings at Memorial Episcopal — Maggiano’s church.
“What that looked like, at least here, was assigning block captains to each block to watch out for either realtors or Black families that might be looking around to buy homes, and then doing whatever they could inside and outside the law to stop them from doing so,” Maggiano said.
Including changing the law. In the parish hall at Memorial, Maggiano said white lawyers helped write what became the nation’s first housing segregation ordinance. Passed by the city council in 1910, the law prohibited Black people from moving to majority-white blocks, and vice versa. About 40 other cities, mostly in the South, followed suit.
“That law became a model for segregation laws around the country until it was overturned by the Supreme Court,” Maggiano said.
That happened in 1917, but the church’s efforts to enforce segregation — in its congregation and the community — would continue through the 1960s and the civil rights movement. Memorial didn’t accept Black members until 1969.
Maggiano wasn’t aware of that history when he arrived from Miami five years ago. By then the church was known for its progressive stance on issues like women’s ordination and LGBT rights. But he did wonder why his new congregation of about 100 people was almost entirely white, like himself, in a part of Baltimore that’s now about 50% Black. He started digging into the church archives.
Then someone arrived whose own search for answers would change everything.
In 2018, Natalie Conway was assigned to Memorial Episcopal as a deacon, a minister who acts a bridge between the church and the outside world. Conway, now 73, grew up in segregated west Baltimore, and she and her brother had been researching their genealogy. Not long after she arrived at Memorial, they discovered that their ancestors had been enslaved by a Rev. Charles Ridgely Howard. One day, Conway was sitting in the church, “and I happened to look up — you can’t see the plaques now, because they’re gone –— and said, ‘Oh, my goodness.’”
There, carved in marble, was the name Charles Ridgely Howard, founding rector of Memorial Episcopal Church.
“I’m serving at a church where my forefathers, my ancestors, were enslaved by the rector of this church,” she recalled thinking. “It was mind-boggling. It was surreal.”
She nearly walked out.
“I didn’t feel comfortable staying here,” she said. “So I talked with Grey about it, and we said, ‘Well, we need to tell the story.’”
So, they told the story to the congregation, and then came another shock. One morning before a service, one of the church’s longtime members, Steve Howard, pulled Conway aside.
“I just told her I’m descended from ‘those people,’” Howard said.
Those people — as in the Howard family who had enslaved Conway’s great-great grandmother. Howard had known about his connection to slaveholders, but when he heard Conway’s story, “that’s what made it real,” he said.
“It’s like I punched myself in the gut, because I realized that I had been ignoring history, and that I had been lying to myself about the past and the consequences of slavery in our past,” Howard said.
Things got more real when Conway led a large group from the church on a trip to the plantation north of the city where her family had been enslaved. Together, she and Howard poured holy water on the ground. And the congregation began to talk seriously about reparations.
It wasn’t always easy, like when church leaders made the controversial decision to take down the memorial plaques, but keep them in a garden behind the church. Memorial has lost some members along the way.
“People would say things to me, like, ‘When are you going to stop preaching about racism, are you trying to make this a Black church?’” Maggiano said. “Some people did leave; some stayed and begrudgingly came along.”
But new members also joined, and by the time Maggiano put a larger reparations plan to a vote earlier this year, the support was unanimous. The plan is to raise and spend at least $500,000 over the next five years. An advisory committee of local Black leaders will guide the investments in areas like education, voter engagement and housing.
“What is happening in Baltimore is consistent with a movement across this country,” said Ron Daniels, convener of the National African American Reparations Commission. The city of Evanston, Illinois, recently launched a reparations program focused on housing. Jesuits have pledged $100 million to support the descendants of enslaved people sold by Georgetown University.
Ultimately, large-scale reparations will require the resources of the federal government, Daniels said. That effort reached a milestone earlier this month, when the House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would create a commission to study the long-term effects of slavery and other racist government policies, and propose remedies. But he said smaller efforts can make a big difference.
“The fact that the parish only has $500,000 is really irrelevant, because at the end of the day, it’s not about a cash payment,” Daniels said. “It’s not about a check. It is about a process.”
That process has already transformed his congregation, Maggiano said.
“The real success will be as if we have so changed the character of this church and the broader community that we become a model for other neighborhoods and other cities around the country,” he said.
Only this time, it’s a model he hopes the church can still be proud of in another hundred years.
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