Preserving Our Legacy: The Archives and Artifacts Ministry of Union Baptist Church

By Evelyn J. Chatmon and Dr. Dorothy Coleman, Co-Chairs, Archives & Artifacts Ministry, Union Baptist Church, Baltimore MD

A casual conversation between Lucretia Billups, Co-Chair Emeritus, and Evelyn Chatmon outside of church one Sunday morning, about a beautiful writing created by the then pastor, Rev. Vernon N. Dobson, blossomed into an acknowledgement of how many church documents were being accumulated in our homes.  That conversation led to our wondering if there was any unified effort to save the history of our church, which was already in the beginning stages of preparing to celebrate its 150th Anniversary.  We learned that there had never been a concerted effort to save the church’s history and were able to convince Rev. Dobson that her history needed to be preserved.  Thus was created the Archives and Artifacts Ministry of Union Baptist Church.  That was 20 years ago.  A well-known Baltimore archivist, by the name of Wayne Wiggins, gave us invaluable guidance, explaining at the outset of our efforts that what we were doing, though unusual, was of great importance.  The effort has been well worth it. union-baptist-1928-membership-photo

Following are just a few of the reasons why Union Baptist Church is historically significant.  Located at 1219 Druid Hill Avenue, Union was organized on May 10, 1852.  In 2010, she was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior.  Moving from its North Street location, the new edifice, dedicated in 1905, became the first church in Baltimore City to be built by Negroes for Negroes.  Ten pastors have served her over 165 years of existence.  The congregation, presently led by Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr., has had the distinction of also being led by two nationally recognized pastors.   Rev. Dr. Harvey Johnson was her fourth pastor from 1872-1923 and Rev. Vernon N. Dobson her ninth from 1967-2007. During the tenure of Dr. Johnson, the congregation grew to 3,000 members.  Dr. Johnson won the first case in the United States striking down the identification of Negroes as cargo in interstate commerce in the case of “Stewart v s The Sue”.  Among other numerous civil rights accomplishments, Dr. Johnson led the litigation to get colored teachers pay equal to that of whites and to allow colored lawyers to practice in the state of Maryland. The tenure of Rev. Dobson saw a continuation of the work of the civil rights movement. Rev. Dobson began working with Dr. Martin Luther King and Union became one of the major sponsors of the March on Washington in the Poor People’s Campaign.  Union also was a staging ground for many civil rights meetings; a major achievement was the integration of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park.  Under Dobson’s leadership, a pilot Head Start program was tested in 1968, a full time program was established two years later, and a child care center was built to house the program in 1995 at a cost of $3.2 million. Union was a co-founder of BUILD in the 1970s, under Rev. Dobson’ s leadership.

Over these twenty years, we have been fortunate to collect from many nooks and crannies in the church, from church safes, from file cabinets and from the homes of many members, documents of great worth.  Examples of what we have collected include original deeds, celebratory programs, minutes of meetings, photographs, numerous artifacts, and the ledgers of the giving of members, which include the monetary gifts of Dr. Johnson as well as documentation of his salary.  Probably most valuable are the hundreds of funeral programs of our members, even dating back to that of Dr. Francis Wood, the first black superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools in the late 1920s.  In addition, we have a copy of the program for the 50th Anniversary Celebration given for Rev. Dr. Harvey Johnson.

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Our current Pastor, Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr., whose dissertation was on the work of Dr. Harvey Johnson, and who is also a member of the archives ministry, is keenly aware of the importance of maintaining Union’s history.  It was at his urging that we sought an African American Heritage Preservation Program (AAHPP) grant from the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture and the Maryland Historical Trust to create an environment to house and safeguard our collection.  Thanks to the grant, we have a separate, climate-controlled space that was dedicated this past October.

The collection will be of great value to those who want to find information about their ancestors or to note the contributions of those in Union’s leadership who came before.  The ministry has mounted displays of documents and artifacts of historical significance. Various members of the public have used our documents to do research for books and papers.  We have received requests for access to our new archives space to learn about what we are doing and why we are doing it.  We encourage other churches to be inspired by our work, and to find similar ways to preserve their legacies – not only buildings, but also photographs, papers, and records – for future generations.

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