Descendants of St. James parishioners recover their Somerset County heritage


ORIOLE -- Years after Ida B. Harper's family left the land of Somerset County for the factories of Baltimore and Philadelphia, a little church at a country crossroads kept calling them home.

Built in 1885, St. James Methodist Episcopal Church was the center of a community of black farmers and watermen here until the economysoured. The church was finally closed in 1965.

Now, descendants of the builders of St. James, largely city dwellers with a rediscovered interest in their rural past, want to restore the dilapidated, cedar-sided church with its three-story bell tower.

"If we hadn't had that little church, we would have been lost," said Mrs. Harper, 86 and again a resident of Oriole. "Our heart goes to that little church because that's where our roots were."

Margaret Johnson, 61, who stayed in Oriole, remembered getting up at 7 o'clock Sunday mornings to fire up the church's two wood stoves for Sunday school and morning worship.

"I was sexton and pianist and Sunday school teacher, just an all-around person," said Mrs. Johnson, who still keeps the church keys. "Everything I know mostly came from the teachings taught in this church. It's my foundation and my life, always will be."

Old-timers like Mrs. Harper and Mrs. Johnson have joined a younger generation of people like Sammie L. Thomas Jr., a 30-year-old Washingtonian, to form the Oriole Historical Society and promote the restoration of St. James.

The group, which acquired St. James and the former church hall last year, has applied for a $36,670 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust to stop the building's decay.

"Oriole was always this mystical place for me," said Mr. Thomas, who works in the District of Columbia government. It wasn't until 1989, however, that the avid genealogist visited the village of his forebears.

Mr. Thomas was immediately impressed by the church's simple beauty, despite its weathered siding, missing glass panes, crumbling plaster and gaping hole in the roof. He was determined to save St. James.

He saw the church as a symbol of a rural black community's strength that deserves to be preserved, particularly as the fabric of big-city neighborhoods frays.

"Our ancestors gave us an example of how to build a community. Maybe that's something we need to apply today in our own lives -- to be more community-minded, to reach out a little more, to put ourselves second," Mr. Thomas said.

The late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of prosperity on the Lower Shore. Somerset County's population peaked in 1910, and more people lived there in 1860 than today.

In 1885, oyster harvests were at their peak, canneries were booming, and farmers found ready markets for their tomatoes, sweet potatoes, strawberries and other crops.

Black Methodists were prosperous enough to build a brick Gothic Revival church in Princess Anne and the simpler St. James at Oriole.

"Small communities, often centered around a newly formed church, provided former slaves with the opportunity to run their own lives," wrote Paul Baker Touart in "Somerset: An Architectural History."

However, many of the families that erected St. James had been free since well before the Civil War, Mr. Thomas said. He has traced some of their roots to Leah Shelton, born in 1794 and listed as a free woman as early as the 1830s.

They built boats along St. Peter's Creek for oystering, grew crops and did carpentry work in the summer months, traditions that lasted well into this century.

"Some farmed their own land. Most helped harvest crops. They tonged oysters in the wintertime and had their own work boats," said Clarence Laird, a Somerset County commissioner who lives three miles from Oriole. "As the older ones died off, the younger ones moved away and settled in cities, and that was almost the end of the church."

Orlando Ridout V, chief of research for the Maryland Historical Trust, said churches like St. James are "extremely significant for historical more than architectural reasons. They are the most visible symbol ofthe development of cohesive, strong, independent black communities."

As such communities grew larger and stronger, "white religion could no longer dictate to black religion," Mr. Ridout said. "It was one place where they could stand up and have an institution of their own that wouldn't be challenged.

"We get a lot of applications for church restorations, but few from black congregations and even fewer from small, rural congregations. Those communities are getting older and older, and young people have little incentive to stay. But now, we're finding a vein of urban blacks who have come to realize how important that linkage [to their rural past] is," he said.

The Oriole Historical Society's bid to restore St. James has won support from groups such as the Somerset County commissioners and the state Commission on Afro-American History and Culture, and from Delegate John W. Douglass, D-Baltimore, a descendant of the church's founders. Preservation Maryland gave the group a grant to hire a structural engineer to assess the building's condition.

The new attention to St. James has stirred many memories -- one of the few links to a past generally ignored in area histories written by whites.

Randolph H. Jones, 80, of West Baltimore, remembered leaving Oriole in the Depression year of 1935, forsaking farm, church and hard times to join the Civilian Conservation Corps and then the Army, and finding work in Baltimore as a steelworker after the war.

Margaret Johnson, standing in the winter light streaming through the church windows, recalled the three long benches of St. James' "Amen Corner" to the left of the altar and her sense of loss when the church was closed.

"It's an awful feeling. It was a long time before I could bring myself to go to somewhere else," she said. "It's a sense of relief to know something is being done to restore it."

Mrs. Harper remembered the Oriole Forget-Me-Nots Club of Philadelphia that would send money for the little church, ride the bus home to worship there and faithfully attend the big annual camp meeting in September, when cars and buses lined the road for miles.

"The prayer bands would sing and shout all night long, kneel andpray and sing and shout. One would sing and put a verse in it and then another one, all night long until the broad daylight," she said.

"Without our church we would have been nothing," Mrs. Harper said. "I'm just counting on God to give me life and keep me going until it is really restored."

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