An upstairs room at Asbury Methodist Church is stuffed with memorabilia and documents of the Annapolis church, from faded photos of generations of church leaders to mugs commemorating the recent 200th anniversary.
The filing cabinets that line a back wall in this informal exhibit space contain a trove of church records — births, deaths and marriages among them. The glass cabinets elsewhere in the room hold other items, including a tea kettle that a century ago sat on a wood-fired stove in the church, used to boil water for tea for the pastor and his visitors.
The church historian, Gloria Brown, said the parish has a story to tell about itself, and about African-American life in Annapolis. In the works are plans to turn this room and its materials into an exhibit detailing the history of what congregants say is the oldest house of worship for blacks in the city.
The church, at 87 West St., recently obtained a $2,500 matching grant from the Four Rivers heritage organization, which promotes tourism and appreciation of Annapolis and South County heritage, and Brown believes a display can be up before the year's out.
"I didn't think we were fulfilling our legacy by keeping this information behind closed doors," she said. "We should be sharing this with the public.
"The church has an extremely rich history," she said, noting that "the congregation has been worshipping on this site since 1803."
Brown said plans call for creation of an exhibit that traces church history through records and displays of its heirlooms.
"That is very significant," said Janice Hayes-Williams, an Annapolis-area historian and congregant who is writing the early history of the congregation.
The church's founders and early parishioners were among prominent and well-known families in their community — businessmen, families with influence and skilled tradesmen. By 1803, a wood meetinghouse on West Street served the surrounding black neighborhood.
"The first civil rights case against the city of Annapolis was in 1830, brought by Mr. Charles Shorter, who built the church," Hayes-Williams said.
Shorter sued the city over the classification of hogs — the livestock owned by African-Americans was classified differently from the hogs owned by whites, she said. "He won. The city had to change the law," Hayes-Williams said.
The structure Shorter built in 1838 was replaced in the late 1880s by a three-story brick church.
Church history includes Asbury's push to help the wider community. Hayes-Williams said her grandmother's uncle, Wiley H. Bates, who was elected alderman in the city in 1897 and whose donations included the land for a school for black children, worshipped there.
As the community grew and other churches sprang up, Asbury grew as well. Its reputation for caring for the community stuck, Hayes-Williams said.
"They fed the sick, they took care of the poor," she said.
"That church was the only church that had an employment agency; we are talking about the early 1900s," Hayes-Williams said. It offered day care along with job placement and a site for other meetings, she said.
In more recent years, the church began a weekly soup kitchen that is still in operation, said Brown, noting an old sign for the Saturday soup kitchen that is among the church's possessions.
Over the years, and as people moved, the congregation grew smaller — though it still includes more than 400 — and gave birth to two other churches, said the Rev. Carletta Allen, church pastor.
It remains a church where office-seekers come on Sunday to meet voters and where generations of families have worshipped, said parishioner Laura Parker, 88.
Parker's father grew up in the church, and that influence helped him study for the ministry. Parker been a parishioner since her 20s and her daughter is now the church organist, a role she once filled herself.
In the 1970s, the church added a modern sanctuary. Planks of wood uncovered during construction that now lie in a glass case are believed to be from the 1838 building.
Since 1999, the upstairs room has been a collection point, but what's been collected hasn't been researched and cataloged. Still, people have come there for genealogical or historical study, as well as out of curiosity. The hope is that heightening the church's profile will increase the formal research, and the plan is to promote opportunities for study and service projects, Brown said.
The committee working on the display hopes to tap into expertise in the area, from the state's archives in Annapolis to the Lovely Lane Museum of the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church in Baltimore, Brown said.
Brown, who put on white gloves to touch sensitive items as she showed them off, said preservation, protection and restoration of some items are needed. Pages of large, undated Bibles with handwritten dedications, formerly used for teaching, are crumbling.
She has high hopes that the congregation's renewed interest, and the Four Rivers grant, can help preserve Asbury's rich past, and carry it well into the future.
"It is something people have wanted for decades," she said.