The beginning quote from the historical page of the 100th Anniversary booklet of the Union Baptist Church reads, “Surely, they must have had a burning desire to build this church”. Indeed that desire was great. Cambridge, Massachusetts in the last quarter of the 19th century was a bustling city for African Americans. The end of slavery and the Civil War brought many opportunities for work for southern blacks, and with the rise of industrialization, work was aplenty in the city. A steady stream of former slaves and sharecroppers, particularly from the Tidewater area of Virginia, came to the Boston area to fill the many domestic and service labor jobs vacated by Irish and Italian immigrants as they headed to the factories in New England. They joined with the population of free blacks already living here to bolster the economy in Cambridge with their sweat and toil. Into this mileau, Union Baptist was born.
Union had its earliest beginnings in prayer meetings held in the basement of Mr. and Mrs. Clayborne Underwood Miller, 371/2 Hastings St, in October of 1878. Samuel O. Weems, Cambridge historian of the early 20th century, gathered an oral history from a daughter, Mrs. Alice V. Jones. “I was a little girl when I saw a group of people meeting in our kitchen and my mother told me they were getting ready to build a Baptist church in Cambridge for the colored people.” After about two months, the kitchen prayer meetings moved from Hastings Street to the corner of Main and Clark Streets, where Mr. James Thornton, a coal dealer, offered his half-basement cellar for a meeting place. Soon the number swelled to more than 70, many of them members of 12th Baptist church, and relieved that they didn’t have to walk or horse-car ride to the church, which at the time was located on Phillips Street in Boston. With a desire to build burning within, they secured the help of Rev. Grimes, then pastor of 12th, to petition the American Baptist Association for a charter. That petition was granted April 18, 1879.
They immediately named their church “Union”, believing that in “Union” there is strength. In three years, the membership grew to approximately 300; its first pastor, James Horatio Carter, was secured; the location moved from the coal basement to Harmony Hall (at the corner of Main and Pearl Streets); and sufficient money was raised to build the church on its current site.
Union Baptist historically has been a church of the community, with serving God at its heart. A quick glance at its activities, gleaned from news accounts, tell of a fellowship that took the education of its children very seriously, and held social uplift at the forefront of its mission. The family of first black graduate of Radcliffe, Alberta Scott, were members, the family of Charlotte Hawkins Brown, founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, NC, were members, as well as other prominent people. During times of distress, Union could be counted on to be of assistance to those who were suffering in the community. Soup kitchens, coal in the winter, clothing drives, were a part of its civic contribution.
The following is a list of clergy who held the post of Pastor:
Rev. J. Horatio Carter – 1879 – 1886
Rev. Dr. Jesse Harrell – 1886 – 1915
Rev. James W. Brooks – 1916 – 1917
Rev. Charles D. Douglass – 1917 – 1923
Rev. Dr. Clanton Clay (C.C.) Somerville – 1924 – 1928
Rev. Dr. F. Havis Davis – 1928 – 1947
Rev. W. Marvin Gibson – 1948 – 1957
Rev. Herbert O. Edwards – 1958 – 1961
Rev. William J. McKissick – 1962 – 1966
Rev. Rev. Robert Clark – 1967-70
Rev. Dr. Herbert O. Edwards – 1970 – 1972
Rev. Dr. Melvin G. Brown – 1975 – 1985
Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown – 1988 – 2009
Rev. Paul R. Ford – 2011 – present
At present Union continues to be a “Lighthouse to the Community”, with a vibrant and lively Sunday worship, and a commitment to serve out our enthusiasm for Christ in our everyday lives.