Constructed in 1882, the Orchard Street United Methodist Church is one of the oldest standing structures built by a Black congregation in Baltimore.
The church was established by Trueman Pratt, a free Black man who was born into slavery in Anne Arundel County, came to Baltimore, and began organizing prayer meetings at his home on Pierce Street in 1825.
According to some sources, Pratt was originally held by General John Eager Howard and sold several times before he purchased his own freedom.
The church formally organized in 1837 and, in 1839, Trueman, together with fellow free blacks Cyrus Moore and Basil Hall, leased the grounds at the corner of Orchard Street and what was then called Elder Alley and the church appeared as “Orchard Chapel,” in a 1842 Baltimore business directory. The congregation paid $80.50 annually to Kirkpatrick Ewing, a Pennsylvanian who owned the property.
The first building went up in 1838 followed by additions in 1853 and 1865 to accommodate a growing congregation. After the end of the Civil War, a great number of recently emancipated Black Marylanders from rural counties on the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland moved to Baltimore and many lived in the area around the church.
One such individual was the Reverend Samuel Green, a Dorchester County native, who had been imprisoned five years in the state penitentiary for possessing the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Green moved to Baltimore in the early 1870s in order to work for the burgeoning Centenary Biblical Institute (now Morgan State University) and worshiped at Orchard Street until his death in 1877.
By the time founder Trueman Pratt died in 1877—allegedly reaching over one hundred years of age—the congregation had clearly outgrown their building and began making plans to build a new church.
In 1882, a Baltimore architect named Frank E. Davis was tasked with constructing the new facility on the same location. The church, renamed the Metropolitan Methodist Episcopal Church, was finished that December at an approximate cost of $27,000. Thousands of Baltimoreans came out for the laying of the corner-stone, including numerous prominent ministers from the region.
A contemporary newspaper account referred to the finished building as the “foremost colored house of worship in the state.” The church developed into an important civic institution for the African American community, often hosting conferences related to politics and education.
The Colored Maryland Literary Union, the Washington Methodist Episcopal Conference, and reunions of United States Colored Troops met at Orchard Street over the years. Teddy Roosevelt even took to the pulpit in advance of the 1912 election in order to warn black voters against accepting bribes by “unscrupulous white men.” The church remained in operation until the congregation relocated in 1972.
Unfortunately, within a year, a fire and recurring vandalism nearly led to the structure being demolished by the city. Recognizing its historical significance, community groups mobilized to save the church.
Several preservation organizations, including the Maryland Commission on Negro History and Culture, sought to document its story. Local historians succeed in listing the building on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
During the research process no evidence was recovered to support rumors of Underground Railroad activity, though church members may well have participated in that movement.
Efforts to restore the church and establish a museum of black history in the state repeatedly stalled throughout the next 15 years. Orchard Street finally received the necessary backing when the Baltimore Urban League decided to move its offices there in 1992.
The organization funded much of the restoration, which has returned the aged structure to its former grandeur. However, 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.
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