OLD BLACK CHURCH MAY BE REBORN AS MUSEUM

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The 19th-century laborers pooled their money and did what they could to build this biscuit box of a church along Offutt Road in the southwest corner of Baltimore County. Atop a stone foundation they put up four walls, eight windows, a peaked roof, three rows of pews, a pulpit for inspiration and a wood stove for warmth - and called the thing done.

It can hardly have been much to look at when it was completed in 1887, and it surely isn't now. That there is a now at all is notable. It will be noted more widely if the Friends of the Cherry Hill African Union Methodist Protestant Church make good on their plans to turn it into a museum dedicated to local black history.

The church stands as a rare piece of physical evidence of a once robust black community that has since dispersed, leaving few traces in artifact or official records.

"It's a wonder this building has survived this long," said Lenwood Johnson, a member of the organization's board. "It's only by the grace of God it wasn't set ablaze."

Or felled by storms, razed or just collapsed of rot since the congregation dwindled and the place was abandoned more than 30 years ago. The roof buckles here and there, the foundation admits sunlight in places and dry vines cling to the wooden walls and ceiling. Graffiti scrawlers got inside, marking one wall with "The Cure," another with "MAD." The piano that once filled the tiny church with "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" lies broken on its back in a corner.

Still, 122 years after it rose on the efforts of a small African-American enclave, the gray-shingled church stands in Granite - so named for the quarries that thrived there in the 19th century and supplied stone for such buildings as the original Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress and the Baltimore Custom House.

Johnson and Louis S. Diggs say their organization plans to turn the place into a museum and, perhaps, a stop along a tour of this part of the county that will also feature an Underground Railroad safe house and the sites of slave quarters and grounds where slaves may have been buried.

"Two city boys keeping all this country history together," Diggs said, laughing, referring to his and Johnson's roots a few miles east in Baltimore.

About 10 years ago, the men helped hack through the brush that surrounded the Cherry Hill A.U.M.P. church and have been working to do something with the place. Formed in 2001, their nonprofit organization has a deed to the property signed over by the church's last surviving trustee in 2002. With the help of state Del. Adrienne A. Jones of Baltimore County, the group landed a $300,000 state grant two years ago to turn the church into a place to mark the community that lived here a century before McMansions came to dominate this hilly terrain.

That money will go toward restoring the 660-square-foot church and building a 500-square-foot addition and parking lot.

The deed shows the property as three-quarters of an acre, but Diggs said there is some question about the exact boundaries and the property might be larger. Just north of the building, a small graveyard contains five headstones, three of which are legible enough to show they were put up in the 1920s and 1930s.

A preservation architect has drawn a basic floor plan, but much of the detail of the future museum is yet to be arranged. The organization's lawyer, Richard Lee, said he's expecting to meet soon with county officials to talk about the remaining steps for getting planning department approval, including consideration of any environmental restrictions. Construction would probably not start until spring.

Twenty-one years have passed since the building took its place in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, meaning the old, wood-frame church is considered worthy of research interest and might or might not have historical significance.

The Maryland Historical Trust makes clear in a 2007 bulletin that the inventory designation - distinct from the National Register of Historic Places and the Maryland Register of Historic Properties - serves no regulatory purpose. In other words, the listing does not confer legal protections.

Diggs and Johnson argue that the church is significant as a historical presence in a field of research - early African-American history - in which artifacts and documentation are hard to come by.

"This building, to me, symbolizes all the struggles, all that people have had to endure," said Johnson, who works for the county planning department. "And now there's no record of it."

The historian trying to track African-Americans of the 19th century and earlier will often find the paper trail sparse, largely because blacks - enslaved and free - were excluded from many activities that were officially recorded.

It's clear enough that the area in the late 19th century was home to one of the county's largest settlements of blacks, many of whom worked in quarries, farms and at Woodstock College, a Jesuit seminary that opened in 1869 and closed in the 1970s.

Local historian Beverly Griffith said she did research on the nine people listed as the original A.U.M.P. church trustees and "could not come up with anything."

Some of them might have been former slaves or descended from slaves but it's not clear. The deed shows they bought the land on which the church already stood for $160 in December 1891 from B. John Dorsey.

Property trusteeship passed to others over the years and eventually was left solely to Helen Johnson, 88, of Catonsville, who said she was ordained as a minister for the church in the 1960s. She said she signed the property over to the Friends of Cherry Hill in February 2002 because she'd "like to see it preserved. I thought it would just dissolve. I didn't want to see that happen."

Diggs, who has published several books on the county's 40 historic black settlements, said the plan is to restore the church so it can be used to display artifacts, photos and video presentations on local history.

While the 1891 deed specifies that the property is to be used for church purposes only, the organization's lawyer said that in light of Johnson's cooperation, he does not foresee that as an obstacle to the plans.

Johnson's memory of the church has faded, but she recalled that the congregation dwindled to fewer than a dozen regulars for Sunday services toward the end in the 1970s as people moved away or died, and young people did not step up to fill the ranks. She remembers playing hymns on the piano, teaching Sunday school and conducting services in what she called an exuberant Pentecostal style.

As she recalls it, it was her aunt, Nannie Harrison, who put the wooden cross over the doorway, where it remains to this day.

She said she's eager to see the church project succeed.

"I want to get it done before I leave this world," she said.

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