Rescued from ruin, tiny African-American church becomes a museum

History buffs restore abandoned African-American church in Balto. Co. into museum.

Summer sun streaming through large windows into the small chapel illuminates panel walls lined with black-and-white, poster-sized photographs of African-American life over the years.

The small, airy room is empty of pews for now, but there's a podium from which to preach God's word.

It's hard to imagine this building — once the Cherry Hill African Union Methodist Protestant Church in the western Baltimore County community of Granite — had been so derelict it was in danger of collapsing.

Over the past year, the tiny church has been painstakingly rescued from ruin and transformed into the Diggs-Johnson Museum — a new life for the 19th-century building that had been abandoned for decades.

Gone are the windows boarded up with wood salvaged from the pews, the spray paint on the walls and the gaping holes in the floor.

"It was scary when I first came in here," said Betty Stewart, a Windsor Mill resident who worked on the restoration.

"It was in terrible condition, actually ready to fall down," said Louis Diggs, a local historian and author from Owings Mills. He is president of the Friends of Historical Cherry Hill AUMP, a group that was founded to renovate the church building.

"It took me a long time to come inside. I wasn't about to come inside."

The church-turned-museum is named for Diggs and Lenwood Johnson, a historian and former Baltimore County government planner who also has been involved in restoring the church.

Johnson said that while working for the county years ago, he was trying to identify buildings shown in aerial photos. Along Offutt Road in Granite, he spotted the little church.

"It was all shrouded in weeds up to the roofline," he said. "As I got up to the building, I found the cornerstone."

The cornerstone was marked with the year 1887, and Johnson knew he had uncovered a building that was historically significant; he reported it to his bosses.

Eventually the building was placed on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, which indicates the building has historical value but doesn't afford the same protections as the Maryland Register of Historic Places or the National Register of Historic Places.

Diggs and Johnson traced the history of the building and learned its last congregation called it the Cherry Hill African Union Methodist Protestant Church. The congregation disbanded in the 1970s.

The property's use as a place of worship might date to the 1860s or even earlier, Diggs said.

He said former slaves who worked in the quarries in Granite and bought their freedom may have squatted on the land and used it as a church. He found a newspaper article from 1869 that described a storm that damaged "the colored people's church on the road leading from the Quarries to Woodstock."

Then in 1884, landowner John Dorsey sold the property to the African-Americans to use for a church and cemetery. Based on the cornerstone, the current building appears to have been constructed in 1887, Diggs said.

The church took various names over the years, including African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant Congregation, Sacred Heart Chapel of the Church of God and Cherry Hill AUMP. It's not known why the name "Cherry Hill" was chosen.

Diggs and Johnson tracked down a woman named Helen Johnson — now deceased — who served as the last minister of Cherry Hill AUMP and was the sole surviving trustee for the property. She wanted to see the church restored, so she gave the property to the Friends group in 2002.

Helen Johnson told The Baltimore Sun in 2009 that she hoped the renovation would be completed before she died. "I thought it would just dissolve. I didn't want to see that happen," she said.

After years of researching, planning and securing funding — including a $300,000 state grant obtained with the help of Del. Adrienne Jones — the Friends group hired contractors last year.

"It's marvelous what's happened to it, because it was a wreck when I found it," Lenwood Johnson said.

The entire building had to be stabilized, with a new floor installed and repairs made to the roof. Half of the windows were missing, so new windows and frames had to be made to match the old ones. The electricity had to be rewired.

Shingles were removed to reveal older wooden siding that's now painted a rich brown color.

The renovation included building an addition behind the pulpit that includes a bathroom — there was no indoor plumbing — and a couple of small offices.

Stewart, secretary of the Friends organization, said the building had been in rough shape and "smelled awful" inside. Now the retired nurse finds peace in the building and sometimes, if she's there by herself, is moved to sing in the old sanctuary.

"This little building may be small, but it has a big personality," Stewart said. "It must have been a wonderful place for people to worship."

While the restoration is mostly complete, the Friends organization is still putting on finishing touches before the museum can open. A projector and screen, which will be used for lectures and classes, have yet to be installed.

Eventually, the museum will offer genealogy and history classes and could be a field trip destination for students studying African-American history. It will serve as a repository for information about Baltimore County's 40 historically African-American communities, including the extensive research and a photograph collection amassed by Diggs.

The museum still lacks tables and chairs, and the Friends group needs money to help with operating and overhead costs. There's also the matter of finding the church's pews — they were sent for restoration to the nearby Woodstock Job Corps, a trades training center for disadvantaged youth, but have been lost or misplaced.

"They're probably just stacked away," Diggs said.

A grand opening is in the works for later this summer.

Diggs said he hopes to find people who worshipped at Cherry Hill, so he can show them what's become of their little church.

"I feel good about saving this history," he said.

pwood@baltsun.com

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