Black church that helped ease racial strife in 1972 among several in Carroll County still providing community
By Allana Haynes
Carroll County Times|
Dec 27, 2019 | 5:00 AM
On the evening of Aug. 31, 1972, racial strife broke out in Westminster.
It started with a fistfight between two black people and two white people in front of the Davis Library on Main Street and later escalated after five white people smashed windows in cars and homes on Union Street, a predominantly black section of Westminster at the time, according to Carroll County Times archives.
Police kept security tight as tension between the black and white communities ran high. After midnight, 75 to 80 young black people gathered on Union Street, angered that there were no arrests after the attack.
Later that day, a meeting was held to settle grievances between the black community and the police. More than 45 people were in attendance — including the Rev. Ivory Blackman and the Rev. Julian Tavenner, black and white co-ministers, respectively, of the historically black Union Street United Methodist Church and the predominantly white Westminster United Methodist Church.
This incident came about less than a decade after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that banned segregation and started the movement toward integration between black and white communities across the country.
Between 1970 and 1980, more than 96% of Carroll County residents were white, while less than 3% were black, according to the 1980 U.S. census. The percentage of white residents vastly outpaced the state average at the time, when more than 74% were white and less than 23% were black.
Nearly a half-century after the Westminster incident, the numbers have hardly wavered, according to the 2018 U.S. census.
In a county where more than 91% of residents are white and less than 4% are black, Union Street UMC is one of a number of historically black churches that have maintained their culture, history and significance throughout the years.
Despite the black population of the county remaining relatively small through the decades, historically black churches have held a long-standing presence. Although they were birthed from similar motivations, the county’s historically black congregations leave differing legacies today.
Two churches, ‘shoulder to shoulder’
Established in 1812, Westminster UMC began when a group of men and women met in the Union Meeting House on Church Street, a building at the time reserved for community events. The earliest roster dates back to 1816, on which it was recorded that 14 members attended the service.
Today, the church meets in a three-story building on Center and Main streets, and serves a congregation of more than 300 members.
David Bearr, dressed in a long-sleeved button-up shirt and khaki pants, stood on the steps outside Westminster UMC, his tall frame filling the double doors leading into the church lobby. On an otherwise quiet weekday morning at the church, his infectious laughter filled the silence.
Bearr, 74, who has been a part of the church since 1970, said that when he first came to the church it was co-led by two ministers who shared leadership duties with Union Street UMC. At one point, the churches considered integrating into one congregation, he said, but ultimately decided to remain separate.
“Our church at the time was [more than] 1,400 members, and they had 84,” he said. “There was concern that they would just be swallowed up, and no one wanted that.”
After the racial incident in 1972, the two ministers at the time, Blackman and Tavenner, joined together to restore peace in the community.
“They had a relationship at that point where it was very natural for them to respond together,” Bearr said. “They walked shoulder to shoulder up and down [Union] Street and visited every home.”
Tavenner, 87, who lives in a retirement community in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, recalled that time vividly in an interview.
“The Rev. Blackman and I walked through the community to let them know we were together,” he said. “It was a rough time for all of us, but we emerged stronger as a community.”
As a former minister who helped lead a black congregation, he said he believes it is important for churches like Union Street UMC to maintain their culture and history in a predominantly white community.
“[These churches] exist because they are serving the Lord,” he said. “The black church became the center of so much for the black community when they were having difficulty and brings a spirit into their worship that is always stimulating and meaningful.”
‘Focused on who we are’
The Rev. John Baptist Snowden founded Union Street UMC in June 1866. Born a slave in Westminster in 1801, he began preaching at the age of 21 and later bought his freedom. In 1864, he helped found the Washington Conference, a group of African American Methodists in Maryland and Washington, D.C., who appointed him to the Western Chapel Charge in Carroll County.
In 1866, a delegation in Westminster approached him about building an AME church to serve the newly freed black people in the community who were worshiping in the basement of the all-white, Westminster UMC. One year later, the church was built on donated land known as Fanny’s Meadow on Union Street.
In June 1972, Blackman was appointed associate minister of Westminster UMC and Union Street UMC, where he served for five years before stepping down because of a medical disability, according to an obituary published by The Baltimore Sun. In 2001, 20 years after retiring, he died at the age of 85 at Carroll Hospital.
Today, the church is pastored by the Rev. Richard Lindsay and serves a congregation of more than 20 members.
On a chilly Sunday morning in December, a small group of congregants gathered in the tiny sanctuary of Union Street UMC. Decorated for the Christmas season, a collection of bright red poinsettias lined the steps beneath the pulpit while the deep scent of burning candles wafted through the air.
“As old as it is, we are still carrying on the ministry of the church to the community,” she said.
One of the ways the church has maintained its culture and history, Morrison said, is by creating an authentic African American worship experience.
“[We] stay focused on who we are as African Americans and what our cultural habits are,” she said. “We sing gospel music and [participate] in celebrations that maintain African American culture.”
Although the church serves a predominantly black congregation, it has collaborated with other churches in the area, including Westminster UMC.
“In the past we were sister churches,” she said. “We were merged with Westminster for a short period of time. Over the years, we have maintained a relationship with them.”
During the summer of 1972, while living in Philadelphia, Morrison received a phone call from her family telling her of the racial strife that broke out in Westminster.
“My mother told me she made my younger siblings get on the floor,” she said. “People were running on roofs and [were told] to stay away from doors and rooftops.”
For nearly a week, men in the community joined the police to secure the perimeters of Union Street, while women served them coffee, she said.
“[People] came together to take care of people,” she said.
Union Street has become slightly more diverse, Morrison said, but the church remains predominantly black and serves a much older congregation.
In order for the church to maintain its presence in the community, it must be willing to adapt, she said.
“Hopefully the church will still be around in 100 years,” she said. “However it changes, we are going to change with it.”
The separation between black and white houses of worship is not a phenomenon unique to Carroll County, however; it has national roots that date back more than a century and a half.
In 1865, after the abolition of slavery, free black people in the north traveled to the south to help former slaves develop values to lead an independent life — and one of those values was religion.
Despite their freedom, black people in the South were not allowed to attend the all-white churches in their communities and started their own, many of which were rooted in the Baptist and Methodist traditions.
“When we think of historically black churches we think of independent black denominations,” said Josef Sorett, associate professor of religion and African American and African diaspora studies at Columbia University. “The [African Methodist Episcopal] church and independent black Baptist church started first as an expression of independence.”
These churches, he said, started as places where black people sought autonomy from the St. George’s United Methodist Church, an all-white congregation in Philadelphia that required black worshipers to sit in the balcony during the service. Refusing to be subjected to the restraints of the church, Richard Allen, the first black licensed Methodist preacher, founded the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest AME church in the nation.
“[Black people] did not reject the theology of the Methodist church, but rejected the white supremacy within the church,” Sorett said.
Since their establishment, historically black churches have served as anchor institutions to tend to the spiritual and social needs of black communities. Nearly a century later, the church became a primary meeting place to discuss strategies for the civil rights movement, raising up leaders like Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Today, historically black churches continue to be a vehicle for addressing the needs of black communities. Yet in recent years, they have been singled out as targets of violence.
On June 17, 2015, nine black worshipers were shot and killed by a white supremacist during an evening prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. More recently, three historically black churches in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, were burned in less than two weeks. Each church had more than a century-long history and served communities of black worshipers for generations.
“[These churches] are very much active and alive in grappling with the best ways to carry on their long-standing missions as well as [determining] how to be most relevant,” Sorett said.
Importance of tradition
Even as they move beyond the experiences of their ancestors, historically black churches continue to hold tight to their traditions.
In 1916, Joe Smith founded Strawbridge United Methodist Church in New Windsor. Formerly known as “Smith Chapel,” the name changed after the current building was completed in 1918. Named for Robert Strawbridge — a preacher from Ireland who is credited for bringing Methodism to Frederick County, the birthplace of Methodism in America — the earliest congregants gathered under the leadership of the Rev. Isaac Berry.
More than a century later, Strawbridge UMC serves a congregation of more than 157 members.
On a sunny morning in New Windsor, Pastor Blango Ross Jr. led a group of worshipers during a weekend service at Strawbridge UMC. Dressed in a dark green robe, he stood behind a wooden pulpit where he delivered a sermon to a small congregation.
Ross, 58, who has served as lead pastor for more than 15 years, said that even though the church has been around for more than 100 years, it has not ventured far from its beginnings. Like their predecessors, congregants today participate in traditional African American worship styles, including gospel music and spirituals.
Additionally, it holds an annual Watch Night Service on New Year’s Eve to remember the night of Dec. 31, 1862, when free black people and slaves gathered in churches and homes across the country to await the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order that declared all slaves free.
When it comes to the church maintaining its culture and history, Ross said it comes naturally.
“We understand that we are in a long progression of people of faith and people of color who lived in the county and worked in the county and raised their families in the county,” he said. “We continue in those traditions and celebrate the spirituals and know that a lot of them were written during and after the slavery experience in the nation.”
In addition to practicing these traditions, the church honors its ancestors through oral history and photographs. He said it is important for the church to remember its past to prepare for the future.
“We have not only committed to those who came before us, but those who come after us,” he said. “We feel that we are still relevant and we bring a different picture and culture to the community in which we live.”
Vaughn Paylor, 55, who has attended the church for more than two decades, agreed.
“When you look at a church like Strawbridge, you realize how much work and dedication the forefathers put into it,” he said. “Churches like Strawbridge have to remain; if not, the black experience will cease to exist."
In order to survive, some historically black churches have accepted a helping hand, including from predominantly white congregations, in difficult times.
‘No color involved’
On April 3, 1977, the Sunday before Easter, congregants of the historically black Union Memorial Baptist Church had no place to worship.
One week earlier, the nearly century-old church building on Green Street collapsed after being pounded by heavy rain from a severe storm. Built in 1881, the church was formerly deeded as the “Baptist Church for colored people” to serve the black community of Carroll County.
Nearly 40 congregants gathered outside the First Presbyterian Church of Westminster, while the Rev. Rayfield Gillard said a prayer.
For six years, the church met in different places around the county, including the old Carroll County Times building on Carroll Street and the First Presbyterian Church of Westminster, a predominantly white church on Washington Road.
Pastor Edna Smith, a lifelong member of the church who is in her 70s, recalled that time as being one of the greatest challenges the church had ever faced. Among those challenges, she said, race was not one of them.
“There was no color involved. Everyone was supportive of our church,” she said.
On Oct. 23, 1983, the church held its first service in its current location on Center Street.
Despite its past hardships, it continues to remember its beginnings.
“We have to make sure our church never forgets its roots and how we got started,” Smith said. “We continue to [remember] that those coming before us fought to have a place to worship.”
Diane Hurd, 54, who has been attending the church for the past seven years, joined the church because it reminded her of the one where she grew up. Since becoming a member, she said, racial tensions do not seem to be an issue.
“Most of the people who attend the church grew up in the community and have integrated within the community,” she said. “Most of them do not see color.”
When it comes to maintaining its culture and history, she said, it is important for the church to remember how much it has overcome.
“You have to remember you are different and the challenges you face are different,” she said. “If you forget those challenges, you are doomed to repeat yourself.”
Union Memorial’s unfortunate situation was mirrored recently by another historically black church in Westminster.
In June 2018, a nearly 10-day string of heavy rain swept through the county, leaving roads damaged and trees downed. Westminster in one day accumulated more than one inch of rainfall, according to Times reporting.
For nearly a year, Union Street UMC held services in the church’s basement after experiencing severe water damage to the sanctuary from a leaky roof. In need of aid, the church reached out to other churches in the area to help them in the repairs — including Westminster UMC.
“Members [of our church] found out the inside of the church was damaged by recent rainfall and the ceiling collapsed,” said Pastor Malcolm Stranathan of Westminster UMC. “We saw it as an opportunity to help the folks at Union Street.”
After learning of the damage, he went with a group of congregants to visit the church and see first-hand what had happened.
“[The sanctuary] had damage to the ceiling, the plaster on the wall and the carpeting was subtly ruined,” said Sharon Row, a congregant at Westminster UMC. “There were just a few pews left in the church, but all the flooring was damaged.”
The church later donated $5,000 and volunteered to clean, paint and retile the floors once the repairs were complete.
“When the opportunity came for us to participate in the repairs, it was natural for us to participate,” said Stranathan, 57, who has pastored Westminster UMC since 2015 and has been attending the church since 1990.
On May 19, 2019, a rededication ceremony took place at Union Street UMC to celebrate the newly repaired sanctuary. Nearly 200 people attended, including Lindsay, Stranathan and other members of the community.
Lindsay declined to comment for this story.
Morrison, who attended the event, said she helped plan it for months and sent out more than 50 invitations.
“We invited a group from North Carolina and invited everyone who had contributed to the [repair] project,” she said. “We made a point to develop a list that included current and past members.”
Stranathan said he thought the event helped bring the two churches closer together.
“Over time, for whatever reason, I think we deferred into parallel tracks, and I think our paths do not cross as much as we would like,” he said. “My hope is in the future we can be in service to the community in mutual ministry.”
Row, 72, who has been a member of Westminster UMC since the ’70s, agreed.
“Our thoughts at Westminster is that these are our brothers and sisters and we want to re-establish the connection we had in the past,” she said.
This ceremony came about 400 years after the first slaves arrived in the United States from Africa in 1619. Nearly two and a half centuries would pass before they earned their freedom and the opportunity to build independent houses of worship that would become pillar institutions serving black communities nationwide.
Morrison said it is important for Union Street UMC, as an institution built by a former slave, to maintain its culture and history for generations to come.
“For the young folks, it is [an] inspiration to know about our history and to know the good parts and bad and how it developed into good,” she said. “I think it is important that each culture has some understanding in terms of identifying who and what you are and what you are doing in a diverse society [so] that you don’t totally lose your historical perspective and [become] a better person that can contribute to society."