Often overshadowed by reports of crime and blight, Charm City’s historical landmarks are still crown jewels of the nation, attracting visitors from all points of the United States and beyond.
When it comes to African-American history, Baltimoreans don’t have to go far to visit designated national historic sites and places where important “firsts” have taken place.
For African Americans, these sites are undoubtedly intertwined with the Black church, where so many important civil rights organizations and now full-scale colleges and universities firmly planted their delicate roots.
“It is where we were nurtured and cared for- a place of refuge and a place to take stand, and a place for our individual salvation,” said Saleem Wooden, historian for Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Our Black historic churches remain as a beacon of the accomplishments that we can win when we come together with single minded purposes for our uplift as a people.”
Bethel Free African Society was formed in 1785 when members of the Methodist Episcopal Church took a stand against segregated seating in the meeting house. The Rev. Daniel Coker was the first to pastor the African Methodist Bethel Church of Baltimore City in 1811. By 1816, the congregation had joined with other churches that disagreed with racism within the Methodist Episcopal Church and launched the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Now led by the Rev. Dr. Frank Madison Reid III, the Bethel AME Church is just one stop on the path to discovering Baltimore’s rich past.
Similar to Bethel AME places like St. Xavier Francis Catholic Church in East Baltimore, the first Catholic Church for African Americans in the country, also holds significance.
For those wishing to get a first hand look at the cost of freedom in a time of bondage, Orchard Street AME Church offers the reality of the Underground Railroad. The church was founded by Truman Le Pratt, who was born into slavery in the Caribbean. Slaves and freed men toiled day and night to see their dream realized. The building now serves as home to the Baltimore Urban League, however; its original edifice was built in 1837 and oral history places the structure as a stop on the Underground Baltimore. A hidden tunnel leading beneath the structure was discovered during construction in the 1970s.
“We need something tangible because just reading about something or someone telling you something isn’t enough. You don’t feel it’s real until you actually see and experience first hand.” said Angela Roberts-Burton, Park Ranger for the National Parks Service (NPS). The organization is dedicated to keeping historic sites, like the Hampton Mansion in Baltimore County, in pristine condition.
Located just minutes from Towson Mall, the Hampton Mansion gives insight to the way slave families were forced to live in one room shacks. Guided and unguided tours are offered to show newer generations how far a people and a nation have come. “This is a tangible reminder of what occurred in the past,” said Roberts-Burton, who has worked with the NPS for five years.
While Black History Month is quickly coming to a close, all are encouraged to get out and see what Baltimore and Maryland have to offer in the way of Black history year round. “Our history should say to the youth that they can do great things too like our people of the past,” said Wooden. “Black History Month and the rest of the year is an opportunity for the churches to tell the story of the greatness of our people and the hardships that we have endured to get where we are today.”