Hartford Memorial Baptist Church’s members follow a motto: The community might not belong to the congregation, but the house of worship is for everyone in it.
And as parishioners this year celebrate their 100th anniversary, plan to expand and work to strengthen bonds in the surrounding neighborhoods, that guiding standard is the thread weaving through the west-side church’s rich past and present.
Recognized by Michigan Historical officials as the first church for African-Americans on the city’s northwest side, Hartford is lauded as a prestigious place where leaders have sought social justice — supporting union jobs for local blacks and ensuring they shared in the city’s burgeoning wealth — as well as bid farewell to famous figures, bought land and homes to spur economic development and helped families in the community.
“Hartford has always been considered to be a church that is involved in improving society,” said the Rev. Charles G. Adams, who grew up in the church and became head pastor in 1969. “We are a church of the people, by the people, for the people.”
And looking past the centennial, longtime leaders say Hartford’s principal pursuit remains widening the church’s reach and serving more.
“We feel that the best years of Hartford are yet to come — that there’s more to do,” said Adams’ son, also named Charles, the church’s presiding pastor. “And we envision not only a church but a campus that will bless the community.”
Hartford’s history is intertwined with the Motor City and its residents.
In the 1910s, as workers from around the world flocked to Detroit for top-paying jobs at Ford Motor Co., “blacks were relegated to live in one area of the city, which was becoming overcrowded,” church historian Anita Moncrease recounted. Conditions pushed some to relocate to the city’s west side, “but there were no black churches” there, she said.
The Rev. Edgar Wendell Edwards worked with an associate to conduct a survey that determined black locals desired another house of worship. So, after permission from religious officials, what was known as Institutional Baptist Church launched in 1917 on Hartford Avenue, Moncrease said.
Edwards became its founding pastor but left within three years for Chicago. The Rev. Charles Hill Sr., assistant to the Rev. Robert L. Bradley of Detroit’s historic Second Baptist Church, became its head in 1920. Within a few years, members moved to a new brick structure erected nearby and, to better reflect the community, renamed the congregation after the street on which it had formed.
Membership rose under Hill, who later led the NAACP’s local chapter and spent years fighting for social justice.
“Charles Hill and the members of Hartford Memorial were forerunners for African-Americans to join the unions and fight for equality in the unions as well as to support African-Americans who wanted to unionize at Ford Motor Co.,” said Julia Robinson Moore, an associate professor of African-American religion with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who has studied and written about the era.
The social justice focus continued under Hill’s successor, the Rev. Charles G. Adams, whose leadership helped membership explode to nearly 10,000 — necessitating Hartford’s 1977 relocation to an ornate building on James Couzens Freeway.
Hartford Memorial Baptist Church is celebrating its centennial, but the parish is not satisfied with 100 years. Mark Hicks / Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
In the 1980s, when Adams led the Detroit Branch NAACP, he successfully called for a boycott of Dearborn businesses after officials moved to ban nonresidents from the city’s parks.
Members say they were instrumental in helping South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela visit Detroit in 1990 after his release from prison. Some even visited South Africa in 1994 to observe the nation’s first multiracial election. Hartford also has worked to raise money for providing clean water in Gambia, Adams said.
Meanwhile, the church coordinates an annual social justice conference and has hosted related events, including a dialogue on police brutality and a voter registration presentation by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader.
The church has been the funeral site for high-profile figures — singers, educators, activists and others. It also has seen politicians ranging from Al Gore to Geoffrey Fieger greet attendees on the campaign trail.
But for its supporters, Hartford is focused on the city.
The church’s land near Seven Mile has been developed into a stretch that now boasts a McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Subway. Recently, congregation leaders collaborated with Presbyterian Villages of Michigan to open Hartford Village, a gated community for seniors.
The church, which features many ministries and runs a bible studies institute, also owns homes to rent out to families, offers tutoring, coordinates holiday meal giveaways and heads an annual black college tour, said longtime member and Trustee Licia Harper.
Hartford, she said, “is more than a church — it’s a community asset and a foundation.”
That role is consistent with churches in predominantly black communities offering “the kinds of services that sometimes the state and government aren’t really providing,” said Angela Dillard, a professor and associate dean for undergraduate education at the University of Michigan who has written about Hartford. “I’ve often described it as a broader pastoral role of the black church — to care not only for the spiritual well-being of its community but the economic and social well-being.”
Hartford’s initiatives have enticed regulars such as Julia Dear, who joined in the 1970s and now sings in the choirs.
“They’re a giving church. If you need something or the community needs something, we’ll find a way to help,” the retired teacher said. “We’re not just a sitting church — we believe in helping people and doing things for the neighborhood and the city.”
The church’s Sunday services draw to the pews entrepreneurs and business leaders as well as congregants who have attended for generations.
Cynthia Harris, the anniversary committee chair who has attended for more than 60 years, is among a long line of members, including her 95-year-old mother, drawn to the church. “It is a family church,” she said. “We learn, we grow, we work together, we work in the community. We support our neighborhood.”
She and more than 1,000 guests toasted Hartford’s century during a sold-out gala Friday at Cobo Center — one of the festivities planned throughout 2017 to mark the milestone.
Meanwhile, Hartford leaders are hoping to enlarge the campus, erect a gym and upgrade a nearby park acquired from the city. Another central goal: enhancing community outreach.
“We like people to feel that they are loved because they are and they are cherished because they are,” said the elder Adams, a former Detroit News Michiganian of the Year who has taught at Harvard Divinity School. “If they are hungry, we will try to feed them. If they are sick, we will try to heal them. That is what Jesus taught.”
The call to heeding scripture anchored a prayer meeting Wednesday evening at the church. About 20 worshipers sat in the tan pews, clutching Bibles or song sheets as summer sunlight streamed through stained glass windows adorned in rich hues of gold, crimson, emerald and violet.
At one point after reviewing a parable about wisely using resources, Charles C. Adams beseeched the group to consider the spiritual significance of tending to the vulnerable.
“God is concerned with how we’re using our resources,” he said. “It makes the world a safer place when we put money into the issues that affect people. We are better stewards of that which God has given us.”