July 2008 Issue
House of Worship
Union Baptist Church, which traces its roots to the Underground Railroad, has a loyal, if far-flung, congregation.
It’s nearly time for Pastor Keith Fulton to speak.
The choir has led the congregation in the gospel favorites, “Do Lord Remember Me” and “Standing in the Need of Prayer,” the sounds of the joyous music and a tambourine filling the humble country church and spilling out into the warmth of a sunny Sunday morning, across the churchyard and into the forest surrounding the Union Baptist Church.
Deacon Paul Keels and the congregation — 40 strong that day — finish morning prayers and devotion. He gently asks for a witness and, one by one, they raise their voices in repentance and thanksgiving.
“Oh Lord, the Devil’s been holding me back but I need to speak to you all this morning,” begins one, before offering her own emotional testimony of trial and redemption.
Pastor Fulton follows along with the congregation during a reading of the Scripture, from the seventh book of Exodus (King James Version):
And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them.
“Amen!” someone declares, clearly but softly, from the back of the church. There could be no Scripture that would resonate better with this mixed-race congregation — nothing, perhaps, excepting John 3:16 — than the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery. No better Scripture because the Union Baptist Church in Blackfork, Ohio — the oldest African-American Baptist church in Ohio —was founded more than 188 years ago by a small group of freed blacks and escaped slaves who discovered their own Promised Land in the hills of Gallia and Lawrence counties.
Eventually, Pastor Fulton steps into the pulpit, and in a voice that fluctuates between subdued and shouting, he preaches to the gathered assembly that God takes whatever gifts one has to offer, no matter how humble, and with those gifts creates great works.
“And God asked Moses, ‘What have you got in your hand?’’’ the pastor shouts. “And Moses said ‘Just a rod.’ And God said ‘That’s enough.’ ”
The first members of the Union Baptist Church certainly knew of making do with simple gifts. Escaping slavery with nothing but the clothes on their backs, they crossed the Ohio River near Ironton and found a well-organized system of safe houses, trails and conductors to lead them North. The Underground Railroad was well organized and well funded in southern Ohio, thanks in large part to the prosperous owners of the iron furnaces in southern Ohio’s Hanging Rock iron region.
Historians say industrialists like John Campbell, who owned a number of the furnaces, had abolitionist leanings and used the network of company towns both as hiding places and as sources of income for the Railroad.
But it wasn’t only white abolitionists who made the trail to freedom a success. Freed blacks, Native Americans and people of mixed race formed communities — not so much towns as loose-knit collections of farmsteads — along the Railroad’s path. One of these towns, known as Pokepatch, was formed in northern Gallia County, about 25 miles from the Ohio River at Ironton.
“They were technically out of the South once they had crossed the river, but they didn’tfeelsafe at least until they’d made it up here,” explains Wayne Keels, the deacon’s cousin and a lay leader of the Union Baptist Church.
In 1819, the church was founded in an old log cabin in Pokepatch. Two years later the congregation affiliated with the Providence Anti-Slavery Missionary Baptist Association (which today is known as the Providence Missionary Baptist Association — its anti-slavery mission fulfilled). As far as historians can tell, Pokepatch existed for no other purpose than as an Underground Railroad station, and after the Civil War, most residents moved on. The church moved on as well, to a spot just across the Lawrence County border between Pokepatch and the nearby village of Blackfork.
Not everyone moved on, however. Wayne Keels’ family, descendants of one of the founding members of the church, stayed in Blackfork. They worked cutting timber or mining silica clay. It was never easy to make a living on the rugged and isolated landscape, but the large number of tombstones in the churchyard engraved with the Keels name is a testament to the family’s persistence.
“They had their faith that, whatever comes, you’re going to get through it,” Keels says. “What held them together, that’s the mystery.”
“It was their religion. That’s what carried them through,” offers his sister-in-law, Lee Keels, who sings in the church choir. “That’s why we try to hold on to that music, because that music came from those hard times.”
There was little left of Pokepatch when, in the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service began buying up land that would become the Wayne National Forest. Almost everything that was Pokepatch is now covered by maturing oak-hickory forest, and the only physical memory of the place is a county road called Pokepatch Hollow and the Union Baptist church cemetery, which includes tombstones of men who fought for the Union in the Ohio Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops.
The people of Blackfork haven’t forgotten their roots, however, and although many moved to other parts of Ohio to work, they often return.
“Church used to be full every Sunday,” recalls Lawrence Long, 84, who was a member of the church as a child. “But a lot of people still worked here, back then, in the brickyard or the coal fields.” Long moved away as an adult to work in the Chrysler auto plant in Perrysburg. After he retired in 1985, he returned to Blackfork and the church of his father and his grandfather.
To reach the church today, visitors must follow a narrow country road off St. Rte. 93 that becomes progressively steep and twisty. Along the way, you cross Dry Ridge Road, which was built along an old Underground Railroad trail.
After the service, the congregation gathers to talk. It’s a fairly small group and, as it always has been, made up of both blacks and whites. The church is more integrated today than it was when he was growing up, explains Wayne Keels, who said only a few eyebrows were raised when Ohio’s oldest black church hired Keith Fulton, a white man, as pastor.
New members still join now and then, sometimes after an immersion in nearby Lake Jackson. The church also receives donations from former members or their descendents who live elsewhere, but still call Union Baptist their home.
“I don’t even want to guess how many members we have, because we have people who have lived in Columbus and Toledo for years who are members still,” Fulton says.
And each year, on the third Sunday of October, families converge from across the country to the small white frame church surrounded by a forest of autumn leaves and celebrate the anniversary of the church founding. On that Sunday, the congregation will swell to 200 to 300, as people come from as far away as California and New England. They spill out into the churchyard on folding chairs, and afterward feast on chicken, potato salad, greens and other traditional homemade foods.
“There’s not a family here that hasn’t had a descendant come back,” Keels says. “If you [brought] them all back, you’d have close to a thousand here.”