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Maryland church marks a vanished community

Built in 1887 in a black enclave of granite workers, the tiny building is scheduled to become a museum.

August 31, 2009|Arthur Hirsch

BALTIMORE — The 19th century laborers pooled their money to build the biscuit box of a church along Offutt Road in the southwest corner of Baltimore County. Atop a stone foundation they put 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.

But that could change 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 artifacts 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 destroyed by rot since the place was abandoned more than 30 years ago. The roof buckles here and there, 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 music lies broken on its back in a corner.

Still, 122 years after it rose on the efforts of a small black enclave, the gray-shingled church stands in Granite, Md., -- a town named for the quarries that thrived there in the 19th century and supplied stone for the original Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.

"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."

Johnson and Louis S. Diggs formed their nonprofit organization in 2001, and the church's last surviving trustee signed the deed over to them the following year. The group landed a $300,000 state grant two years ago to turn the church into a marker for the community that lived here a century before McMansions came to dominate the hilly terrain.

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

A preservation architect has drawn a basic floor plan, but construction of the future museum would probably not start until spring.

Twenty-one years ago, the old wood-frame church was placed on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties, meaning it was considered worthy of research interest but may or may not have historical significance.

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

Property trusteeship of the church was eventually left solely to Helen Johnson, 88, 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 because she would like to see it preserved.

"I thought it would just dissolve," she said. "I didn't want to see that happen."

Helen Johnson's memory of the church has faded, but she recalled that the congregation dwindled to fewer than a dozen regulars for Sunday services 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.

"I want to get it done," she said of the museum project, "before I leave this world."

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arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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