Since the 1700s, churches had anchored the city's black community life. Baltimore had the oldest black Catholic church in America. The congregation that started Sharp Street Church dates from 1787; Orchard Street Church was built in 1837 by former slaves; and the St. Francis Academy, Maryland's first Catholic school for African Americans, was founded in 1828. Besides offering a spiritual foundation, the city's black churches were social hubs.
It was built to be a magnificent structure. It was the largest church in Baltimore City at that time. It included seating capacity of fifteen hundred people. I can remember very vividly in my mind that I was going to Sharp Street for the Easter sunrise service. You'd have to line up outside about one o'clock to even get a seat here because it was where the Easter pageant was held... and it's the kind of thing that you look forward to because you knew that it was going to be extravagant and you knew that it was going to be excellent...
The ministers who pastored here weren't just run of the mill, they were men who came with the thought to build, to build the church and to build the community. And how do you build the community? You build the church, you know. You get to each person where they feel their soul is and then you reach out and develop their minds and then their bodies are benefitted.
-- Dorothy Daugherty on Sharp Street Church
Schools formed another cornerstone of community life. Douglass High School was nationally famous for its quality graduates. As in other areas, there was a lot of overlap between student life and church life, and between the church and community activism.
Some of the schools didn't have large auditoriums so when they had the Christmas plays and Easter plays and programs of that nature a lot of them were held here at the church. Then when you deal with so many other things about African Americans like politics, when there was a drive for someone from the African American community to be elected, that a lot of the political activities were held here. The educational programs were held here.
-- Dorothy Daugherty on the overlap between school and church life