The Path to Reparations
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Excerpt from The path to reparations by Cynthia R. Greenlee for Faith & Leadership.
One memorable day two summers ago, Rev. Natalie Conway was sitting in Baltimore’s Memorial Episcopal Church when her brother called. He’d visited Hampton National Historic Site, once one of the nation’s largest plantations and found records that mentioned probable enslaved ancestors who shared a family surname: Cromwell.
The Baltimore-raised siblings had been searching online for their ancestors. That’s no small task, since paper documents don’t always survive time, disasters, or household purges. Moreover, bondspeople are hard to trace because—deprived of literacy, last names, and personhood—they left few clues.
Conway, a deacon at the church, recalls her brother asking whether she knew that Charles Ridgely Howard may have owned their ancestors.
“Where have I seen that name?” she said. “And sure enough, it was on one of the plaques at the back of the church.”
Howard, it turned out, was the parish’s first rector. Memorial Episcopal Church was established in 1860, just before the Civil War erupted, when Southern sympathizers broke from their abolitionist mother church. Memorial’s founding fathers were slaveholders and, after the war, proponents of the Lost Cause, a narrative that painted the seditious South as the aggrieved party.
A second Memorial member also had a connection to Hampton. Restaurateur Steve Howard, 54, is an indirect descendant of Charles Ridgely Howard.
“The fact that [my ancestors] were enslavers wasn’t hidden. It just wasn’t dwelled upon in our family history,” he said. “It was, ‘Here were these people; they had a farm, they were involved in politics and building the city and all that—and they had slaves, too.’ Let’s move on,” was the general sentiment.
The convergence of Conway’s and Howard’s stories—one arising from people enslaved at Hampton, the other from the planter class enriched by stolen human labor—became the narrative linchpin for Memorial Church’s reparations work.
Today, the congregation is at the vanguard of religious communities’ racial reconciliation efforts. It has created a reparations program that includes the establishment of a $500,000 fund to support black-led nonprofits such as Black Women Build; deepened ties with a nearby African-American Episcopal congregation; set up a standing committee to consider how the church can meaningfully affect racial justice; and committed to a continuing effort to excavate the church’s history, warts and all.
The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, which includes Memorial, agreed to study reparations in 2019. By September 2020, more than 80 percent of its delegates voted to establish a $1 million seed fund to be disbursed to programs in black communities.
In its recent history, Memorial has a reputation for progressivism, as the first Maryland church to bless a same-sex union (in 1992) and as a leader in the support of LGBTQ clergy and ministry to those living with HIV/AIDS.
Even so, committing to reparations required learning about where the church had stumbled and broadening his own view of what needs to be repaired, said Rev. Grey Maggiano, the church’s rector.
In May 1956—almost two years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared public-school segregation unconstitutional—Memorial parishioners refused a substantial grant for church expansion because of the funding’s conditions.
The congregation would have to admit black members. The vestry voted no and showed the rector the door.
Maggiano had studied public policy before coming to Memorial in 2016, a year after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody sparked the Baltimore uprising. The church is in a largely black neighborhood near Eutaw Place, where turn-of-the-century mansions are within walking distance of open-air drug markets and boarded-up buildings are proof of urban divestment.
He asked black neighbors what their experience of the church had been. The answer: “Your part of the neighborhood isn’t safe for us to walk through.”
Maggiano requested 911 call records for the area. For 2019 alone, he found 280 calls that reported “suspicious persons” in the vicinity. Combine that with a mostly white congregation that didn’t desegregate until 1969, and the wide gulf between the church and its neighbors was no surprise.
Maggiano and his parishioners have navigated blind spots and tender points. When Conway preached about her brother’s discovery, the plaques were still in place, though covered with black cloth.
“I could see it flapping in the wind. It made me angry.” She searched for a way to channel her pain and righteous anger.
Days later, white and black congregants from Memorial and its sister church, the historically black St. Katherine of Alexandria, visited Hampton plantation, where Conway and Howard offered a liturgy-libation to honor the enslaved.
Still, some black members didn’t want to engage in race discussions; such talks had gone badly before. They “liked this church and wanted to continue to like white members,” Maggiano said. And Howard suspected, even when people didn’t say it, some white members felt unfairly implicated.
Hard though those lessons were, Memorial had a few things in its favor—a tangible connection to slavery, a motivated rector, a sympathetic diocese—which made the conversation less fraught, though not easy.
Howard said, “It’s about building relationships; it’s not just about money. I mean, money helps. Without money, there’s a credibility question,” he said.
“But if we can have a strong relationship with St. Katherine’s and St. Katherine’s can be a viable presence in West Baltimore, and if organizations like Black Women Build . . . can thrive because of something that Memorial Episcopal does, that’s what I want to be a part of. I don’t want it just to happen. I want to be a part of it.”
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