Suspended by only brick and mortar the cornerstone holds a building together. It is the base, the staple, the most important and least remembered portion of the structure. Without it, the building has no foundation, no beginning. And, in the event of collapse, serves as a place to begin anew. In the Druid Hill community of Baltimore City, Orchard Street church became that cornerstone, has been that foundation, and will be that place to begin anew.
Nestled in its Seton Hill neighborhood, the city’s oldest standing structure built by African-Americans remains a staple in the community. The Orchard Street Church dates its earliest history back to 1825. Truman Pratt, then a freeman, but born a slave in March 1775 at Hild’s Light, near Hope Chapel, started a prayer meeting, most likely in a dwelling. Pratt was not an ordained minister, but actively conducted church affairs for more than forty years. The original Orchard Street Church structure dates back to 1837, with subsequent additions in 1853 and 1865 as the congregation grew. The church was founded and organized by Truman Pratt, Basil Hall, and Cyrus Moore, all free Black men. City records cite the “Orchard Chapel” property as being deeded to Pratt, Hall, and Moore in September 1839. The building itself was erected by slaves and black freedmen who worked by torchlight in the night.
While its exact role is not certain, tunnels under the church were long associated with the Underground Railroad, and the Orchard Street Church was reportedly a stop on Harriet Tubman’s passage to freedom. Archaeology completed during the church’s restoration in 1992 uncovered one such space associated with the Underground Railroad, which has been made accessible by stairway. The tunnel under the Orchard Street Church is located near Pratt Street, where slaves were sold directly from the ships at the harbor, and lead to the old Mount Royal Station.
The Orchard Street Church was recognized as a separate Methodist church in the 1840’s. The church shared the services of rotating Black ministers who served under the appointment from White ministers of the older Methodist-Episcopal Black congregations such as Sharp Street and Dallas Street, now known as Centennial, Ashbury and John Wesley. Pre-abolition, two prominent ministers were shared. William Watkins, a famed abolitionist-teacher of national eminence, and John Fortie, a teacher and businessman of considerable wealth and prestige. In 1848, John Fortie was among Black ministers who asked that Black congregations be given full charge of their churches. During the Civil War, this reorganization of the Methodist Episcopal Church occurred, and the Orchard Street Methodist Church would be able to oversee its own congregation. Both “zealous and Godly” while being a slave, Pratt proved his temperament was better suited for freedom. He ran away from his owner, John Roy, around 1814. Pratt became a seaman for several years, and shipped out of Boston, but soon he desired to return to Baltimore. Upon his return, he twice attempted to purchase freedom from his owner, and eventually succeeded. At the Methodists’ Washington Conference of 1876, Pratt was honored. In the last few years of his life he was acclaimed by his fellow Methodists until his death in 1877, at the venerable age of 102.
WATCH THIS VIDEO ON THE RENOVATION OF THE BUILDING
In 1975, the church obtained listing on the National Register of Historic Places as one of the earliest African Methodist Episcopal churches. It is also listed as a landmark by the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, and noted for its Romanesque style and Gothic window on the northeastern façade. It was in 1992 that it became home to the Greater Baltimore Urban League (GBUL).
The church, its members, and its service gave life to what would become thriving community. When it became home to the Greater Baltimore Urban League (GBUL), they were dedicated to furthering its mission of civil service and advocacy. GBUL was unwilling to allow the historic venue any further deterioration, and launched a massive effort to open the doors of the church, to the community, once again. Since the GBUL assumed the space, the church has been given a new life based on old ideals of community empowerment. Although it no longer functions as a Sunday meeting place, it delivers a great service to the Baltimore community at large. The League has long maintained its mission of helping African-Americans and other minorities succeed in Baltimore’s mainstream. From its home base of Orchard Street Church, the GBUL has created programs and partnerships that reach every corner of the city. GBUL runs a collaborative youth leadership development project called the Saturday Leadership Program and is a leading partner in Baltimore’s College Access Consortium, a team of like-minded leaders in education dedicated to reducing Baltimore’s academic achievement gaps. The volunteer auxiliaries, the Greater Baltimore Leadership Association and the GBUL Guild, organize community service programs and collaborate with numerous charitable organizations every year. The Greater Baltimore Urban League is represented on key boards, committees and working groups directly affecting the lives of Baltimore citizens. These include the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, the Central Maryland Transit Alliance, and the Prevent and Deter Violent Crime Working Group. In addition to its community commitments, GBUL maintains its historical commitment to the church. The League hosts historical tours, reenactments, and living history presentations that bring the church’s story to life for hundreds of students, tourists, and history enthusiasts. The Orchard Street Church is a living community center, housing the Greater Baltimore Urban League administrative offices, program space, and community meeting space.
One-hundred and thirty plus years of wear on the building and the community have taken its toll. But, the Urban League maintains, like our home base, a strong foundation. We are sure that, with your help, we can begin to rebuild our community and renew its cornerstone.