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Rev. Marcus Garvey Wood, longtime pastor of Providence Baptist Church, dies

The Rev. Marcus Garvey Wood was a pastor, a civil rights leader and friend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Rev. Marcus Garvey Wood was a pastor, a civil rights leader and friend of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.(Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

The Rev. Marcus Garvey Wood, longtime pastor of Providence Baptist Church, a seminary classmate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a confidant of the civil rights leader, died Monday in his sleep at Sunrise Assisted Living in Pikesville. He was 99.

“He and my mother were cousins, which makes him my second cousin,” said U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Catonsville. “One of the major things he did was leave a little piece of himself in all of us. He was a gentle giant, a great theologian, and was singularly unique when it came to inspiring and leading.”

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The Rev. Dr. Douglas E. Summers has been co-pastor of Providence Baptist Church since 2000.

“He had a pastor’s heart and was a pastor par excellence. He shepherded his congregation, and every time you turned, he was there,” said Dr. Summers, an Ellicott City resident. “I’ve known him since I was 16 years old and now I am 62. I watched him preach, and then he called me to be his co-pastor. I was blessed to be his co-pastor and labor alongside of him for 20 years."

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Dr. Summers added: “He was a man of great humility, and he loved to regale people with stories from his childhood and as a young preacher.”

The Rev. Dr. A.C.D. Vaughn, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in East Baltimore, has known Mr. Wood since boyhood.

“In my estimation, Reverend Wood was the epitome of what good preachers are all about. He was a people person and built one of the greatest institutions in this city and God gave him longevity,” Dr. Vaughn said. “He was looked up to and one of the sainted members of our community. He was a father to us all.”

Mr. Wood was a mentor to the Rev. Reginald Thomas, pastor of Greater Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church on East Preston Street.

“As a man, he was really just a great example of faithfulness to his family and congregation. He was brilliant, but not boisterous,” Mr. Thomas said. “He had a calm strength about him. He was low-key, and I know that’s countercultural.”

He added: “And for him to have had a relationship with Dr. King, whom he knew personally. He walked with him. He studied with him.”

Marcus Garvey Wood, son of Frank Wood, a carpenter who had been born into slavery, and his wife, Julia Wood, a domestic and homemaker, was one of seven children in Gloucester, Virginia, and raised on his family’s farm.

Mr. Wood was named for Marcus Garvey, the 20th-century African American nationalist and Pan-Africanist leader, said Monica G. Wood, a granddaughter, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“When he was 17, his father sent him into the world with 25 cents and a pat on the back,” The Baltimore Sun reported in a 2018 profile.

Mr. Wood’s spiritual journey began at the Union Zion Baptist Church, where he preached his first sermon when he was a senior in high school. His church licensed him to preach in 1937, and three years later he was ordained a Baptist minister.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from what is now Morgan State University, a bachelor’s degree in history from Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and a master’s degree in divinity in 1951 from Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania.

Before entering Crozer in 1948, Mr. Wood was pastor of churches in West Virginia and Woodbury, New Jersey.

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He was one of 11 African Americans chosen to complete the vigorous academic divinity master’s program at Crozer, where one of his classmates, who became a lifelong friend, was Dr. King.

In those days at Crozer, Dr. King "was really really a young man that we all looked up to,” Mr. Wood told The Sun in 2018. “We knew that he was going to be better than we were ... and always had a book under his arm.”

As a young man, Dr. King had already developed an ability to summon others to causes with his learned eloquence.

Mr. Wood explained in the interview that when it was time to graduate from Crozer, he tried to dissuade his friend from returning to the South because he had fallen in love with Betty Moitz, a white woman who was the daughter of a cafeteria worker.

“I said they will kill you,” Mr. Wood told the Sun. “They’ll hang you up on a pole. ... The prejudice is too heavy in the South for a black man to marry a white woman ... or even to become a pastor of a church in the South.”

Mr. Wood attended the 1963 March on Washington where his friend, the last to speak, presented his “I have a dream” speech.

“When we were in seminary together, King would walk around the hall preaching. ... But when he became popular, he called us together and said, ‘You all must stick by me, for I am going to dismantle this society,’ ” Mr. Wood told Time magazine in a 50th-anniversary article on the march.

“And we would jokingly say to him, ‘King, if you try to dismantle this society that we’re in now, somebody’s going to shoot you. Somebody is going to bring you down, because society is so ingrained with segregation. The culture has been born into segregation, and therefore it’s not going to change,’ ” he said.

Mr. Wood was the last surviving member of the Crozer Class of 1951 to have known Dr. King, his granddaughter said.

When Mr. Wood was called in 1952 to Providence Baptist Church, the original sanctuary was at Fremont and Edmondson avenues, housing a congregation founded in 1928. He was its third pastor.

He was an imposing figure in the pulpit, a man who favored double-breasted suits, crisply pressed white shirts and firmly knotted ties.

In 1981, he moved the church, which was the state’s first solar-heated church, to Pennsylvania and West Lafayette avenues, once the site of the Frolic Club.

“He was a visionary,” Dr. Summers said. “We called him 'Inspector Gadget’ because he was always on the top of new fads. If it was something new, he had to have it, whether it was the cellphone, computer, or a certain type of watch. He always tried to be out front and stay on top technologically.”

At his church, Mr. Wood helped institute food programs, an AIDS ministry, prison outreach and the Providence Adult Day Care Center. He also served as director of youth services for the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention and was an active member of the Baltimore Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

When Providence celebrated its 60th anniversary, President Barack Obama said of Mr. Wood, “We are reminded of the abiding truth that each of us has the power to create a better world for ourselves and for our children when we do God’s work here on earth.”

Dr. Summers wrote of Mr. Wood at the time of the anniversary celebration: “Having shepherded many generations of blessing babies, marrying the young, giving counsel when needed, burying the dead, receiving new converts into the kingdom and leading one congregation to greener pastures of opportunity, God is to be praised.”

Mr. Thomas said: “He was well-loved. He was a statesman. He was eloquent.”

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Said Mr. Mfume: “His disavowed any trappings or pretensions and lived his faith in God. He didn’t suffer fools lightly and was one of a kind. He was, as they say, ‘the Real McCoy.’ ”

Said Dr. Summers, “He will be sorely missed, but his memory will linger for years to come because he had his fingers all over the place.”

Mr. Wood’s wife of 69 years, the former Bessie Pendleton, died in 2017.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a memorial service are incomplete.

In addition to his granddaughter, Mr. Wood is survived by a son, Marcus Granville Wood of Gary, Indiana; a daughter, Jeanetta M. James of Randallstown; a brother, Garnett Wood of Washington; and three other grandchildren.

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