One hundred years ago, the members of Sharp Street Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church gathered to dedicate their new Gothic Revival edifice, the first church built in Baltimore for an African-American congregation.
Their spiritual descendants will gather in the same sanctuary today to celebrate a century at Dolphin and Etting streets.
"Sharp Street is literally the mother church of black Methodism in Baltimore, in Maryland and, in some sense, in the country," said the Rev. Bruce Haskins, the pastor.
Part of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, the congregation dates its founding to 1802, when it occupied a building on Sharp Street, between Pratt and Lombard streets, now the site of a Days Inn. Some argue that it dates back to 1787, when it separated from Lovely Lane United Methodist Church and began meeting in the basements of its members' homes.
What is now called Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church has played a vital role in the history of Baltimore's black community. The Centenary Biblical Institute, which became Morgan State University, was founded by the Sharp Street congregation and began classes in the church's lecture rooms in 1867.
Its congregation has included a number of prominent names. Frederick Douglass was a member and sang in the choir from 1836 to 1837. More recently, the congregation included Lillie Carroll Jackson, who led the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for more than two decades, and her daughter and son-in-law, civil rights activist Juanita Jackson Mitchell and her husband, NAACP lobbyist Clarence Mitchell Jr.
Over the years, the church thrived on Sharp Street, but it eventually outgrew its quarters, and the congregation began looking for a new location. "Over time, the congregation of FTC African-Americans was moving to North Baltimore," said Dorothy Dougherty, Sharp Street's historian. "The church had become too small in more ways than one."
The church moved north to the area where its congregation lived, a practice that continues today as urban congregations such as Bethel AME, Sharp Street's sister congregation around the corner, contemplates a move to the suburbs. Sharp Street's move seemed to be no less controversial in 1898, judging from an article written in The Appeal, the church newsletter.
"Happily the removal of our church uptown does not lie open to the charge of abandoning the masses in order to keep up with the more highly favored few," the article said. "But a small number will be inconvenienced by the change and none will be left destitute of church accommodations. We are going to the people, rather than from them."
Part of community
Today, most of Sharp Street's roughly 500 members live in the suburbs and commute to West Baltimore for services. But Haskins said that does not mean they have separated themselves from the neighborhood.
Haskins, who was sent by the local bishop to Sharp Street in 1984 as the youngest pastor in the church's history to re-energize "a traditional congregation that had gotten a little aged, a little sleepy," has started several outreach programs, including after-school tutoring, a soup kitchen, a food pantry, a summer camp, a summer arts institute and a Saturday church school.
"Many of our members pass their childhood homes on their way here. And so there's a commitment to making a difference in this community," he said. "They still have fond attachments to this community."
Anniversaries are nice, but a congregation that wants to thrive can't rest on its laurels, Haskins said.
"We've got all this history," he said, "But you can't live in the past."
Pub Date: 12/12/98