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Episcopal church established by Baltimore slave owners creates $500,000 reparations fund

A Baltimore Episcopal church founded by slaveholders in the 1860s says it will spend $500,000 over the next five years to establish a fund intended as reparations for slavery.

Members of Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill voted Sunday to set aside $100,000 to donate in the next year to community organizations doing “justice-centered work.” The fund aims to address race-based inequalities that took root during slavery and proliferated for generations in the church and in the community at large.

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The parish will take half the funding from its endowment and half from its operating budget, and will provide $100,000 each year for the next five years, the Rev. Grey Maggiano, the rector, said.

A church advisory group will choose beneficiaries that focus their work on issues of housing, education, environmental justice or civic engagement — areas in which church researchers have found that parishioners supported racist views and practices in years gone by.

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“The parish has been focusing on uncovering the truth of our past,” Maggiano said. “We’ve been studying the true impact that Memorial inflicted on our neighbors through housing segregation and redlining, through disenfranchisement of Black voters, and through inequity in school and youth programs here in Baltimore.”

The panel is considering organizations that work within the church’s ZIP code, 21217, an area of about 40,000 people in west-central Baltimore, more than 86% of them African American.

The decision makes Memorial the first parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, and among the first religious institutions in the state, to establish a fund dedicated to reparations for slavery.

Several Episcopal dioceses — including ones in Maryland, New York and Texas — have launched reparations programs within the past two years. The Diocese of Texas has made by far the largest pledge, allocating $13 million toward long-term programs aimed at benefiting African Americans.

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The Maryland diocese established a $1 million reparations fund in September.

Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, founded by the Presbyterian Church; Virginia Theological Seminary, an Episcopal institution in Alexandria, Virginia; and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., a Catholic school, have created similar funds.

Memorial’s decision comes as the national Episcopal Church reckons with its historic connections to slavery and other forms of institutionalized racism. Episcopal leaders have acknowledged, among other things, that “the Southern, slave-owning class” helped establish the church’s financial foundations and that it remained neutral during the Civil War.

The United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Catholic Church are among the other major denominations taking stock of their historic connections to racism, but the Episcopal Church has been the most active in embracing reparations as policy.

The Rev. Christine McCloud, canon for mission for the Maryland diocese, said the diocese has been encouraging each of its more than 120 churches to research their history to understand any “potential connectedness to the issue of slavery, the slave trade and slave labor” — and that Memorial has been among the most active in doing so.

It was Maggiano, 39 and white, who kicked the process into overdrive when he took over as rector of the small, predominantly white congregation nearly four years ago. He led members of the vestry, or governing board, and other parishioners in combing through old vestry notes, scouring old articles from The Baltimore Sun and The Afro-American and even conducting interviews with longtime church neighbors.

Their conclusion: that “racism is interwoven with Memorial Church’s history.”

Among their discoveries: that the founding pastor, the 19th-century cleric Charles Ridgely Howard, was a member of a slaveholding family and saw it as his mission to serve as a bulwark against societal change; that church leaders worked openly for decades to prevent African Americans from owning homes in Bolton Hill; that the church’s longest-serving rector, William Meade Dame, was an avowed segregationist who presided over dedication ceremonies at two of Baltimore’s longest-standing Confederate monuments, and that church leaders fought well into the 1950s to prevent Blacks from joining.

This past came even more vividly to life in 2019 when a recently hired deacon, Natalie Conway, learned through genealogy research that some of her ancestors had been enslaved by founding pastor Howard’s family at the Hampton plantation in Baltimore County.

That led Conway, who is Black, to reassess her relationship with her friend and fellow parishioner, Baltimore businessman Stephen Howard, who is white and a descendant of the slaveholding Howard family.

The two subsequently led the parish through a series of events and exercises meant to help the congregation heal what Maggiano calls the “breach” between Blacks and whites that has long been woven into parish life, just as it was in Bolton Hill, in Baltimore and in the nation as a whole.

In one such event, Conway and Howard traveled with about 50 other parishioners to the Hampton historic site in Towson, where they poured holy water on the ground near the old slave quarters in an act of symbolic reconciliation.

Since then, the parish has decided to remove historic plaques honoring Charles Ridgely Howard and Henry Van Dyke Johns, a slaveholding Baltimore rector to whom the church was made a memorial, and covered a triptych dedicated to Dame, as members have sought to find an appropriate way to contextualize their complex contributions.

The portion of funding taken from the parish’s endowed wealth represents 10% of its endowment. The advisory group is to decide in February how to spend the $100,000.

The Rev. Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP and an ordained minister, said he applauds the effort.

“It’s a welcome and positive step, because it’s an acknowledgment of — and an effort to correct — a long-lingering wrong,” Little said. “I think it’s a great conversation starter for the church community at large about how the church can play a leadership role at this moment, in this country and in the world, about eliminating structural inequities.”

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