by Mary Klein, diocesan archivist
“William Leavington, a native of New York, was ordained [to the diaconate] by the Rt. Rev. William White on March 18, 1824 in Philadelphia. Mr. Leavington, a free man of color, elected to go South below the Mason-Dixon Line, and amid the auction block and slave pen, made an attempt to raise a church wherein both bond and free of African descent might worship the common Father of all.” So reads the first paragraph of a history of St. James’ Church written in 1949. The Rev. Mr. Leavington was encouraged by the bishop, James Kemp, and a few others, and in by June of 1825, he had secured an upper room at Park Avenue and Marion Street in which to hold divine services and Sunday School. The fledgling congregation remained in that upper room until March, 1827, when the congregation moved into their first church at the corner of Guilford and Saratoga Streets. It was only the third Episcopal Church in the city, following St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s.
Article I of the constitution and by-laws for St. James’ Church (written in 1829) stated, “This church shall be called, distinguished and known by the name of St. James’ First African Protestant Episcopal Church in Biltmore” [sic], and it also indicated that “all male members of this Church who are above 21 years of age, whether bond or free” were eligible to vote in vestry elections. But in 1834, Mr. Leavington wrote in his parochial report, “Although the constitution of the church gives to those brethren who are in bondage, the right of membership in the church, much dissatisfaction has prevailed among some of the free brethren; yet with the blessing of the great Head of the Church, it has been happily and finally settled.” Quoting Bishop Kemp, Mr. Leavington said, “the venerable bishop told us that both bond and fee might serve God; and above all people in the world, he thought, we ought to be the most united in the world”.
When Bishop Whittingham asked for a list of communicants from each church in 1844, St. James’ sent in the names of 34 persons, two of whom, Eli Stokes, and Harrison Webb, would go on to become Episcopal priests. But as the years wore on, the congregation fell on hard times, and St. Paul’s Church took over the spiritual charge of St. James’ from 1873-1888, sending clergy to minister to the congregation. The church building was condemned in 1889, and the congregation temporarily moved to Howard Chapel at Park Avenue and Dolphin Street, until they took possession of a former Baptist Church on High Street, west of Lexington. But in 1891, the fragile nature of St. James’ Church was about to be transformed by the Rev. George Freeman Bragg, who would lead the parish until his death in 1940.
The day Dr. Bragg arrived in Baltimore, November 17, 1891, with his mother, wife and two babies, the state of St. James’ Church was very low; Bp. Paret had assumed paying the total salary of the new rector ($200 per year), and there was no rectory; but by 1901 the membership had grown from 63 to 180, and the neighborhood was changing, with new settlers from Europe flooding in. The Maryland Churchman reported in July 1901, “St. James’ First African Church, driven out of East Baltimore by the invasion of its territory by a foreign population, has sought a new place on Park Avenue, at the corner of Preston Street.” The old church was sold to a Jewish congregation as a synagogue, and a new building was erected, serving the congregation until 1932.
By 1925, the communicant list had grown to over 500, and “the gradual migration of blacks into West Baltimore convinced Dr. Bragg that St. James’ needed larger quarters in a location closer to the heart of the black population.” Because of this “gradual migration of blacks to West Baltimore” the Church of the Ascension, which had been built on Lafayette Square in 1867, decided to move to a new location. St. James’ sold their church building to the city which was interesting in making “certain improvements” to the neighborhood, and in 1932 purchased Ascension’s church, chapel, rectory, and Parish House (which included a bowling alley and garage). The Church of the Ascension had promised Bishop Murray before his death in 1929, not to sell their complex until they had offered it to St. James’ for “the Church’s work amongst the colored race”, and as a consequence St. James’ congregation moved into their present facility on Easter Day, 1932.
In addition to Dr. Bragg, during whose tenure twenty men were sent into the ministry, St. James’ has nourished great leaders in the Church. The Rev. Cedric Mills, rector from 1940-1963, was elected Bishop of the Missionary District of the Virgin Islands in 1963; and the Rev. Michael Curry, rector from 1988-2000, became Bishop of North Carolina in 2000, and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 2015. As the Rev. George Bragg wrote, “St. James’, weak and insignificant in material things, has nevertheless been strong in spiritual things, and has given freely of her sons to ‘bear the message glorious’.