On 21 Curve Street in West Newton, a quietly regal white building sits facing the road. The sign in the front identifies the structure as the historically Black Myrtle Baptist Church. For 149 years, the church has been a cornerstone of the African American community in Newton, creating a space for worship, togetherness, and empowerment.
“I think, overall, the general sort of tenor of the community is very, very warm and welcoming,” Rev. Alicia Johnson, an assistant pastor at the church, said. “We are formally, officially, a welcoming and affirming community.”
Myrtle Baptist is unique as it has a history of activism and community work, allowing it to act as a haven for those that need it.
“The reality is that people are wrestling with a lot of thoughts, a lot of pressure,” said Anthony Crossan, the first vice president and chair of religious affairs at the NAACP Boston Branch. “The church often is the place where we can pour those things out in a place where faith can meet with answers … or at least to pray and believe.”
The church is uniquely focused on preserving its history, and it sees its past as an important basis for its future.
“Myrtle has been a place that tries to reach out as well as care for those who come,” Johnson said. “That aspect of our history continues to drive us toward finding new ways to do that.”
Inside the building and above a balcony overlooking the main body of the church, museum-style panels depicting the history of Myrtle Baptist Church line the walls. It’s a part of a church project that started in 2014 as an effort to preserve and celebrate the church’s rich heritage.
“We’re very proud of our history, and I want to say that our members know our history,” Shelby Robinson, the church’s history committee co-chair, said. “We always, you know, we celebrate our anniversary, we always do a big reading of the history.”
Myrtle Baptist Church was founded in 1874 when a group of Black Newtonians left the church now known as Lincoln Park Baptist Church in Newton to create their own place of worship. Rev. Edmund Kelley, a former slave, was invited to preach to the group, and he became Myrtle Baptist Church’s first pastor.
“He was a huge activist, in terms of, obviously, the anti-slavery movement, and, you know, Black people having autonomy and things as such,” Robinson said. “He helped empower Black communities to begin their own churches.”
The creation of Myrtle Baptist Church was not without its opponents. Nathaniel Allen, a prominent white abolitionist and educator, criticized the creation of a Black church and insisted that it was a step back for the Black community, according to a letter Allen sent to The Newton Journal in 1874, provided by Robinson.
In response, Kelley wrote a letter in The Newton Journal defending the new church as a space for greater Black autonomy.
“We deny that there is any proscription in the colored churches, for they open to all classes … the differences being that [Black people] are as eligible to the front seats, as they are to the back seats in the white people’s churches when they are permitted to occupy any seats at all,” Kelley wrote.
According to Crossan, the church in general has played an irreplaceable role in mobilizing the African American community.
“[The church] was the one place where they could be free together, where they could worship, discuss issues,” Crossan said. “And that has been really long-standing, and when we look today, we would not be near where we are without the church.”
Despite Allen’s criticisms, the members of Lincoln Park Baptist Church were supportive of Myrtle’s creation and the departure of their Black members, according to Robinson. They completed church construction in 1875 on land gifted by D.C. Sanger, a deacon from Lincoln Park Baptist Church.
“The people at the Lincoln Baptist Church totally got it … it was all done, as they like to say, with love and support,” Robinson said.
In 1897, however, a fire destroyed Myrtle Baptist Church. There is speculation about whether or not the fire was lit intentionally, according to Robinson.
“There was a fire, okay, which Newton papers described as a fire of an incendiary nature,” Robinson said. “It was always thought that the fire was lit deliberately.”
Within the year, church members rebuilt the church on the same plot of land, where it remains to this day. Notably, the new structure included two stained glass windows, which now cut a striking image over Curve Street.
As the years progressed, the church acquired a generational history, according to Karen Haywood, wife of former pastor Rev. Howard Haywood.
“I used to look at the elders of the church and say, ‘Oh, you know, look at the elders of the church,’ and now I am them,” Haywood said. “So, a lot of people have passed on a lot of people that have had the same characteristics that I had passed on. There are many people that are born and bred.”
The church’s community, in addition to being home to a family-like legacy, also carries memory of its hardships.
Between 1962 and 1965, the homes of 21 church members were taken by eminent domain and demolished for the extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike (Mass. Pike), according to History of a Church, a book outlining the history of Myrtle Baptist Church.
“That was the Black community,” Robinson said. “That was where everyone lived. Everyone went to church there. Everybody knew each other. It was a whole community. And then it was the issue of the Mass. Turnpike coming, and homes were taken by eminent domain.”
Many residents were not getting fair prices for their homes and were shut out from renting in Newton, according to Robinson.
“It was just a really bad time,” Robinson said. “They weren’t paying people what their homes were worth. They wouldn’t pay you. They told you that you couldn’t know how much they would pay you until you actually left your house. I mean, it was just a lot of shady stuff that went on, it was very bad.”
The Mass. Pike is 50 yards away from the church, across the back parking lot, according to Robinson.
“Our concern when the Mass Pike came was that we would lose the community, and we would lose the church and everything,” Robinson said.
The eminent domain issue, however, impacted the church’s community in an unexpected way.
“Wherever people went, they came back to the church and they brought, you know, neighbors and friends,” Haywood said. “The church grew because of the, you know, the taking of the homes, you know, the Mass Pike, but again, the struggle was, you know, how can I afford to stay here?”
The memory of the eviction of church members is still recent to a lot of church members, according to Johnson.
“It was my great grandparents’ home, my grandparents’ home,” Johnson said. “My mother lived there. Our homes were taken by eminent domain. So it’s not like it was so far past that people don’t remember it.”
Since the expansion of the Mass. Pike, the church has committed itself to providing Newton with affordable housing, creating Myrtle Village, which converted two homes built over a century ago into seven affordable housing units, according to the city’s website.
“We really wanted to take some of the additional property around the immediate neighborhood of the church that had been part of the historic Myrtle Village and really retain that property,” Johnson said. “One of the biggest pieces of [Haywood’s] legacy was wanting Newton to take affordable housing for all people more seriously. And so Myrtle Village came out of that effort and really is a way of calling back to the community that existed there before the Mass. Pike came through.”
Myrtle Baptist Church has worked with several other communities around the world throughout its history. Under Haywood, church members went to Nairobi, Kenya to serve at the Kinyago-Dandora School Project, according to History of the Church.
“We had a Missions Ministry at that time that was directly responsible for connecting us with other kinds of organizations,” Johnson said. “One thing that we recognize is that there’s no real need to recreate the wheel. And so it helps us to not expend so much energy trying to plan projects, but to join with organizations and initiatives that are already happening, or sort of fomenting themselves.”
Several church members also helped those affected by Hurricane Katrina in collaboration with the Newton Housing Authority.
“Several families came to Newton by way of the new housing authority,” Karen Haywood said. “And because my husband was on housing committee, he, myself, and several several other people were responsible or volunteered to find the housing to find everything that was needed in those homes—you know, bedding, everything from square one because they came here with a lot of them with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”
This activism is important to church members, especially in that it honors their history as a community.
“Those kinds of efforts are ways not only for us to acknowledge our history as a community, but also to be able to then continue to work for justice and equality now,” Johnson said.
The church is partnering with Historic Newton to celebrate its 150-year anniversary next year.
“We are going to be working with them to see about getting a grant for an archivist to come and to look at our paperwork to see how it can be preserved in the best way,” Robinson said. “And then we’ll be filing for a grant jointly with Historic Newton and they are going to help us archive our paperwork. It is a huge project, and it’s great.”
Myrtle Baptist feels that its future involvement with the community will always be connected with its rich history, according to Johnson.
“I don’t think that history defines our activism, but I do think that it continues to inspire people to want to continue to sort of make history in different ways,” Johnson said. “I think that knowing that the founders of the church and that many generations of people have worked in the past for the betterment of the community continues to show that that ethos continues to enliven the kinds of work that people choose to do.”
The Black church is a prime space for developing these kinds of initiatives, where community members can come together and mobilize for causes they share, according to Crossan.
“We’re talking about ripe opportunity to strategize together, to consider what are the issues in our community, to get a pulse from people, to present messaging to be shared out,” Crossan said.
But ultimately, the church and spaces like it offer a kind of solace through their intersection of community and spirituality, he said.
“It creates this weight, this value, that’s different than what’s common on a normal basis … to understand this isn’t just when we get there, but this is right now,” Crossan said. “This is present in some of the tenets and principles that are useful to get people to a place of peace over trauma, a place of love over a lot of the chaos that we’re seeing.”