The Rev. Natalie Conway’s tenure as the new deacon of Memorial Episcopal Church in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill was by all accounts going well last year when she received news that sparked a personal crisis and sent shock waves through the congregation.
One of Conway’s siblings, who was conducting genealogical research on their family, told her that some of their forebears had been slaves on a local plantation — and the people and the land were owned by none other than the extended family of Memorial’s founding pastor, 19th-century cleric Charles Ridgely Howard.
If that weren’t disorienting enough, a current parishioner at Memorial — a man Conway had known for years and respected — was a descendant of the slaveholding clan.
The cascade of revelations at first overwhelmed the lifelong Episcopalian and native of Baltimore.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Why should I stay at a place that enslaved my ancestors?’” says Conway, 71, one of the few African American members of the 159-year-old parish. “I need to leave this church."
Instead, she has helped lead her congregation on a journey.
Conway — who as deacon is called to direct the church’s work in the wider community — has shared her feelings of loss and her hopes for reconciliation at multiple parish events over the past several months.
In August, she led a trip of about 50 parishioners to the Hampton plantation in Towson, where the forebears of longtime Memorial member Steve Howard kept hundreds of slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries, including Conway’s ancestors, the Cromwell family.
She helped design a ceremony at the site in which she and Howard, a Baltimore businessman who is white, poured water that had been blessed by clergy into the ground near the slave quarters.
Last Sunday, Conway and Howard led the parish in a call-and-response “litany of reconciliation,” a prayer in which worshipers asked God to offer forgiveness “for the times we have failed to recognize racism in ourselves, in our church, in our society.”
Howard had always known of his ancestors’ slave owning past, but “kept it at an intellectual level” until Conway’s story emerged. He’s still grappling with its implications, but says addressing their joint history ― though it felt like “a punch in the gut” — was important.
“This has been a giant step forward," he said.
Their story will be a focal point of the proceedings this Sunday when the parish hosts “The 1619 Project,” a community conversation on America’s slave history dating to the first sale of black people in the British colonies, the United States’ legacy of racial injustice and the Christian goal of reconciliation.
Members say the events reflect a truth essential to any genuine effort to bridge gaps caused by legacies of oppression: It’s necessary to acknowledge the past before starting anew, no matter how painful the process.
Daviedra Sauldsberry, a 15-year parish member, attended the Hampton trip and last weekend’s service. She says that as hard as it is to watch Conway and Howard air truths that might have been left unspoken, the struggles are leading to growth for everyone taking part.
“It has been remarkable to see reconciliation taking place literally before my eyes,” said Sauldsberry, who is African American.
Truth be told, Conway’s and Howard’s examples have only accelerated a process that had already begun at Memorial, as it has in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and the Episcopal Church as a whole.
The national church and its local branch have established truth and reconciliation commissions around the subject of atonement, modeling their work after a restorative justice body assembled in South Africa in 2000 after the end of apartheid.
The Virginia Theological Seminary, an Episcopal seminary in northern Virginia, has just announced it will set aside $1.7 million to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people who labored on its campus.
The Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, the bishop of the Maryland diocese and an African American, points to the Sutton Scholars High School Enrichment Program, which helps at-risk Baltimore students sharpen life and academic skills, and his testimony in June before Congress in support of U.S. House Resolution 40, which proposes the formation of a bipartisan panel to explore the prospect of reparations for slavery.
Such reparations, he says, would involve not government coercion or mean “white people writing checks to black people." But it could mean developing initiatives that can help people whose opportunities have been limited by slavery and the entrenched discrimination it prefigured, from lynching to redlining to disparities in the quality of education and health care.
Sutton, who has known Conway and Howard for years, says whatever else it involves, reconciliation calls for the kind of truth-telling their parish is engaged in.
“When individuals have an ailment, a sickness, like cancer, it’s important to get the cancer out,” he says. “No one says to the doctor, ‘We don’t want surgery. It’s going to hurt.’"
Memorial has been trying to do just that for three years, since the arrival of its current rector, the Rev. Grey Maggiano.
Maggiano, 38 and white, says he was was attracted to the 300-member church in part due to its reputation for “pushing the envelope on progressive issues.” Memorial, he says, was among Maryland’s first parishes to employ female and openly gay priests and to host same-sex unions and weddings.
As he delved into its history, though, he began to realize it was for generations a bastion of racial segregation.
Ninteenth-century property records showed that Howard, members of his extended family, and many of the parish’s early worshipers were slave owners and Confederate sympathizers.
Segregationism became part of its identity. Marble plaques that flank the entrance commemorate Howard, who Maggiano says saw it as his duty to serve as a ballast against social change, and Henry Van Dyke Johns, the rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon, a cleric who enjoyed widespread respect but also owned slaves.
After Johns died in 1859, Memorial was established to honor his memory.
Back issues of The Sun and The Afro-American, old minutes of vestry meetings and even elderly Bolton Hill residents confirmed for Maggiano and parishioners that institutional racism and support of segregation persisted for more than a century past the end of slavery in Maryland.
Church leaders, they learned, worked openly for decades to prevent African Americans from owning homes in Bolton Hill. Members helped form a “Mount Royal Protective Association” to effect that goal. (Bolton Hill’s population is about one-third African American today, according to the most recent U.S. Census.) Minstrel shows were held at the church through at least the 1930s. And as recently as the 1950s, Memorial rectors are on record as berating parishioners for belonging to “Negro groups” such as the NAACP. The church didn’t admit black members until 1969.
After last Sunday’s service, 20-year parishioner Bill Roberts said the revelations have come as a shock to those who viewed Memorial as an inclusive place, but he’s glad to have been apprised of the realities. If nothing else, the Ellicott City resident said, he’s now aware that memories of the church as a racially insensitive community survive in Bolton Hill and beyond, and without facing and working through its history, Memorial can’t realize its potential as a place of godly acceptance.
“For a lot of us, it means recalibrating what we understand our church to be, and even though it’s a challenge, it’s more than worth the effort,” said Roberts, who is white.
Maggiano has been spearheading that effort for nearly three years. He has led the congregation on prayer walks throughout West Baltimore, aligned Memorial with the mostly African American West Baltimore Ecumenical Alliance and coordinated activities with members of the Church of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Druid Heights, a West Baltimore congregation founded in 1891 by African Americans denied membership in white parishes such as Memorial.
Maggiano preaches regularly on the subject of racial reconciliation, as he did last week. And reconciliation, he told his flock, calls for more than apologizing.
Whereas an apology is a single act, atonement calls for acknowledging the truth of the past and using it to bring about lasting change.
“We’re here to reconfigure our lives to each other," he said. “Our responsibility as Christians is to not stop after the cameras go away and the attention dies down. It’s to create a community that better reflects God.”
What shape that will take, Maggiano says, has yet to be determined.
For now, church leaders have draped black fabric over the plaques commemorating Howard and Johns. This Sunday’s discussions will include whether to remove the covering, add text that puts the founders’ lives in context, or take out the memorials altogether. Also up for debate: whether to change the church’s name. After all, it still refers to a segregationist.
Conway says she’s glad she stayed at Memorial to help bring such questions to the fore, and that her fellow worshipers have been so overwhelmingly supportive.
“It’s not about shaming or blaming anyone for the past,” she says. "It’s about telling the truth. My ancestors and this church are one, and that story needs to be told.”