Memorial Church was founded on Easter Monday in 1861, by the Rev. Charles Ridgely Howard and several members of Emmanuel Church, Baltimore. It was to be a ‘memorial’ to Henry Van Dyke Johns, the previous rector of Emmanuel Church, Baltimore, and a mentor to Rev. Howard. Both preachers were men of means and status from important families in the region. Johns was brother to the Rt. Rev. John Johns, bishop of Virginia, and chaplain to General Robert E. Lee. Both Howard and Johns owned persons who were enslaved prior to the Civil War and were part of a large trend in Baltimore that supported chattel slavery and the Confederacy. In fact, the neighborhood of Bolton Hill developed in the post-war era with significant resources from wealthy southerners “escaping” the deep South. (Rationale, Maryland is below the Mason Dixon line.)
The early years at Memorial were marked by a rather large turnover of clergy, including the untimely death of Rev. Howard, even before the new church was completed. Seven of the first eight rectors had fought for the Confederacy or owned people of African descent, as did the Rev. Dr. William Meade Dame, who become the eighth rector of Memorial in 1878. Under his leadership Dame oversaw the ‘rise’ of Memorial and its commitment to the ‘Lost Cause’ of the Confederacy and segregation.
Like most Episcopal Churches in Maryland at the time, Memorial’s constitution stipulated that only free, white men over twenty-one were eligible for leadership in the church. With its ties to the Confederacy, Memorial members and leadership worked aggressively to keep black Baltimoreans out of the neighborhood and out of city life. This exclusion was most egregious during the long tenure of Rev. Dame from 1878 to 1923. Dubbed the ‘Bishop of Bolton Street’, Dame was a well-respected leader in the community and the city. He argued publicly for discrimination in housing and at the ballot box. He was chaplain to the Daughters of the Confederacy (headquartered at Memorial), the Confederate Veterans Association, the Maryland 5th Regiment (the all white National Guard detachment in Baltimore comprised mostly of Confederate loyalists), and he was a leader in the ‘Lost Cause’ movement of the Confederacy, described in Dame’s eulogy as “a living cause … triumphant in the South’s heroic struggle, triumphant in the great leaders it added to American History.”
Memorial members and clergy were involved in erecting two Confederate statues in Baltimore (The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in 1903, and the Confederate Women’s Monument in 1918), in enforcing exclusionary neighborhood covenants, in working with other churches to stop black families from moving into the Mt. Royal District (now known as Reservoir Hill, Bolton Hill, Madison Park, Druid Heights and Upton), and in the production of a yearly minstrel show offered by the St. Andrew’s guild. In August, 2017, Memorial’s Confederate monuments were removed by order of Mayor Catherine Pugh as part of the city’s response to a tragic confrontation at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the deaths of three people. The rally had been held to protest the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville.
Memorial’s history as a supporter of segregation and Jim Crow did not end with the Rev. Dr. Dame. In the 1950’s, Memorial refused a request to integrate the Bolton Hill Recreation Center (which it co-sponsored with Brown Presbyterian) despite requests from the Episcopal Church at large, the bishop (the Rt. Rev. Noble C. Powell), the rector (the Rev. Arthur Kelsey), and an international evangelical society. Memorial then fired its rector, and his associate rather than change the character of the parish.
Memorial remained a segregated congregation until 1969, when the Rev. F. Lyman “Barney” Farnham arrived. In his first official act, Barney asked the pastor (the Rev. Forrest Smith) of Sharp Street United Methodist, the oldest African American Church in the city, to join him at the altar. Some members left the parish, but young families began to join, helping to open the church to all, and honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every human being in the community. Since then, Memorial, its clergy, and members, have committed themselves to issues of social justice in our community and in the world.
In the second half of the 20th century, Memorial Church began a transformation from a tradition-bound, conservative church with strong roots in the southern Confederacy to one that sought to become progressive, diverse, and committed to social outreach. The burning issues of the day included race relations, the anti-war effort, women’s rights, LGBT rights, assistance for the poor and elderly, youth advocacy, and urban renewal. For over sixty years, the parish has been an advocate for all of these issues, and is known for its activism and outreach.
Since January, 2017, we have sought to deal head-on with our history of racism and how previous actions of this congregation continue to impact our neighborhood and our city today. We began by having direct conversations with each other about the history of our parish, memorializing those in a liturgy of repentance using the stations of the cross, and asking ourselves what acts of atonement might be necessary. We have committed ourselves as a parish to both BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) and the No Boundaries Coalition—two organizations seeking to lift up black leaders and communities and to right historic wrongs. These are but the first steps for us as a community.
It is a long and painful journey. We’re very excited to see the Confederate statues come down in Baltimore —visible signs and symbols of our troubled past—but we recognize that this is not the end of our work or our responsibility.
Learn more: http://memorialepiscopal.org/
1407 Bolton Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21217