Morgan State University President David Wilson addresses the congregation Sunday at Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church in the Upton neighborhood.
Morgan State University President David Wilson addresses the congregation Sunday at Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church in the Upton neighborhood. (Tim Prudente / Baltimore Sun)

On Christmas 1866, African-American pastors founded a modest Bible school in the basement of a Baltimore church to educate newly freed slaves.

Nearly 150 years after the inaugural class, current students joined members of Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday to celebrate the gathering that launched Morgan State University.

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The church was adorned with holiday wreaths, poinsettias and blue-and-orange university banners.

"We have come back home to this place, Sharp Street Church, where the miracle of Morgan State was born," university President David Wilson said. "Morgan owes its very existence to this church."

The school was founded soon after the Civil War as Centenary Biblical Institute. The first class of nine men met in the church basement near the present-day Baltimore Convention Center.

The founders created the institute to train young men for the ministry, but by 1890 its mission had evolved and its named was changed. It would prepare men and women as teachers as Morgan College.

The service Sunday launched a yearlong celebration of the 150th anniversary of the historically black university now in Northeast Baltimore.

Wilson appointed a 50-person committee five years ago to plan sesquicentennial events and unearth forgotten chapters in Morgan history. The university also hired its first archivists.

Researchers learned that the school established a sister campus in Lynchburg, Va., with a replica of a school building in Baltimore.

The first president there, Frank Trigg, was born a slave to workers in the Virginia governor's mansion. The Virginia school building burned down in 1917, and its students came to Baltimore to study.

Today, the grounds in Lynchburg contain an elementary school. Morgan faculty plan to send over a display of their history.

Wilson also learned of the role of the Rev. Samuel Green in founding Morgan. Green, a freed slave, spent years in a Baltimore jail after he was caught with inflammatory material: a copy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the anti-slavery novel.

Green was released from jail and urged Methodist leaders in the 1860s to make education a priority for African-Americans.

"He said, 'My people will learn to read and write," Wilson said. "And I think he was thinking, 'How to run this country'" — an allusion to the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008.

The congregation laughed.

"We began 150 years ago as a vision among your ancestral leaders," Wilson said. "Now we have blossomed into an internationally acclaimed institution.

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"We thank you for our wings."

A history of Morgan State University is to be published next year. Wilson expects it to become required reading for all students.

Buses brought Morgan students from campus. Members of the Alpha Nu Omega fraternity and sorority served as ushers.

"We see you as extended family," said Raphael Koikoi Jr., pastor of the church. "So even as we say, 'Welcome,' we say, 'Feel at home. For this is indeed your home.'"

Morgan professor Dale Green presented a slide show that traced the university's history from the handful of students in a church basement to nearly 8,000 on a 143-acre campus today.

"We were a seed planted in the basement of this church," he said.

Green has led efforts to have Morgan's history recognized. In May, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated the university a National Treasure.

Commencement this winter will bring another milestone, Wilson said. Morgan will have graduated more than 50,000 students.

Cherita Johnson, who graduated two years ago, sang the gospel song "Total Praise" with her daughter, Trinity, a Morgan junior.

The crowd stood and swayed and cheered as the voices of mother and daughter rose higher and higher. Then Shirley Davis, a 1993 graduate, sang "Great is Thy Faithfulness."

Morgan freshman Stephen Thompson Jr. read from the Book of Hebrews. Senior Stephen Pearson read from Psalms. Junior Brittany Mitchell read from an epistle.

Andrew Mitchell and Kayla Lawrence, students named "Mr. and Mrs. Morgan," called out with pride: "We are Morgan!"

After the hymns, readings and prayers, all left the sanctuary — the students and worshippers, the alumni and pastors, a community that started 150 years ago a school that grew into a Baltimore institution.

They walked out singing: "We've come this far by faith."

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