Two centuries of family, home and worship

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 13, 2022

Union Baptist Church, located north of Decatur Township in the community of Blackfork, was established in 1819. The church, the oldest active black church in Ohio, was recently honored by the state with a historic marker, which will be dedicated at an event on Aug. 27. (The Ironton Tribune | Heath Harrison)

Blackfork church honored by state for its history

BLACKFORK — For more than two centuries, Union Baptist Church has served the residents of its community, located 27 miles north of Ironton on the edge of Lawrence County, making it the oldest active Black church in the state of Ohio.

And, in two weeks, a special event will take place honoring its proud history.

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A historical marker from the state will be dedicated at 2 p.m. on Aug. 27 at the church.

“It’s coming,” member Lee Keels said of the monument, which complete and is awaiting installation before the big date.

The church’s history dates back to 1819, only slightly more  than a decade after the state was founded.

Those who escaped slavery from the south into the free state of Ohio founded Poke Patch, in Gallia County, near where it meets Jackson and Lawrence counties.

Among those settlers were John Stewart, William Chaves (Chavous), James Dicher, Cornelius Harris and Peter Coker.

The original log building of Union Baptist Church was built in 1880. Seen in front of it are Gordon Keels Sr., Nicey Scott, Tom Matthews and Fritz Keels.

In a history of the church, composed for its 200th anniversary in 2019, Poke Patch is described as “community of mostly African-Americans, freed or escaped from slavery, free blacks, mullattos (any mixture of African-Americans with White, American Indian, European or Asian) and a few white families.”

“The work was all here in Blackfork and people started migrating to the work,” member Charlene Jackson, who shared that she is a direct descendant of the Poke Patch community, said.

“I think all the people here are descendants of people who worked on the Underground Railroad,” she said.

The community also served as a station on the Underground Railroad, helping those fleeing slavery until it was abolished during the Civil War. Pastors from the church were active in the operation of the Underground Railroad, member Janet Hogan said.

The congregation is seen gathered in front of Union Baptist Church on Aug. 21, 1938.

In 1819, people from the community started the church, first meeting in the homes of members, with Stewart as their first pastor. In 1879, they began meeting in a building on the farm of Dickie Jones in Peniel.

One year later, a church building was constructed from the logs of the old Saunders Church and moved to the Keels farm in Poke Patch. This served as the home of the congregation until the current church building was constructed in 1919.

History can be seen throughout the church. The steeple contains the bell from the old log church and is still used to this day, while on the wall is a map of the adjacent cemetery, which is the resting place for generations of families who attended the church.

The members are especially proud of the map, which was a long process and a drone was used to create it. It contains a directory of all known names buried on the grounds.
Records on the cemetery had been passed through trustees over the year, but has now been compiled into a thorough display, Jackson said.

The grave of Medal of Honor recipient Russell Long, a member of Union Baptist Church, is located in the cemetery adjacent to the building. (The Ironton Tribune | Heath Harrison)

“We have a pretty good idea of it now,” she said.

One of those is Donald Russell Long, a Medal of Honor recipient and member of the church, who was awarded the medal posthumously after the 26-year-old sergeant threw himself on a grenade to protect his crew while helping in an evacuation during the Vietnam War in 1966. The first division of the Ironton-Lawrence County Memorial Day Parade is permanently named in his honor.

The cemetery next to Union Baptist Church is comprised mostly of members of the congregation over two centuries and contains graves of veterans from the Civil War to Vietnam. (The Ironton Tribune | Heath Harrison)

Members say there are about 60 veterans buried in the cemetery, from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. All are honored with a display in the church’s vestibule.

Also honored in the vestibule is the Rev. Isaiah Tubbs, one of the church’s longest serving pastors, who led the congregation from 1858-1980 and is fondly remembered by members. A native of Alabama, he and his wife, Nancy, came to the church from Beulah Baptist Church in Portsmouth and grew the congregation at Blackfork, while the building was expanded to include a new dining room, kitchen and restrooms.

Today, the regular congregation numbers at 16, who attend each Sunday, though Keels points out they have hundreds of members who have left the area and still support the church financially.

She said they often see large numbers of them return for big events, such as the bicentennial two years ago, when they had more than 100 show up.

“And we had a really nice service,” Jackson said.

They said, for the marker dedication, they already have 80 RSVPs for the event.

“People talk about how friendly it is and how happy they are when they come into the church,” Jackson said.

Some members live as far away as California and Hawaii, they said. The oldest female member is Altalena Galliamore-Harris, who turned 100 years old in June and now lives in Fostoria, while the oldest male member is Herbert Scott, 94, who lives in Texas.

It was two of the church’s out-of-town members who began the work to get the historic marker. Sonia Booker, of Columbus, and Lucretia Scalia, of Canton, began the process a few years ago.

“They started before COVID,” Keels said.

Booker’s aunt, Glenna Abbott, said her niece submitted the paperwork and worked hard for the marker.

“These were her ancestors and she wanted something done for them,” she said.

The church is currently without a pastor, Keels said, but notes that deacon Paul Keels has been working to fill the pulpit.

“We belong to a Baptist association with several churches,” she said. “ We’re not the only one in the association without a pastor, so it keeps him busy. But we are thankful for the ministers who do come and they do preach from the scriptures and Bible and that’s what were interested in.”

She said that is what all their regular members seek.

“We don’t have a lot who attend, but I feel like the ones who do attend are concerned about their souls and are here to hear the word of God and the Gospel,” she said.

When seven of the members gathered on Wednesday to talk with The Tribune, they showed how important the history of the congregation is, bringing with them written histories of the area and church, as well as photos. They reminisced about things they remembered growing up there, recalling cookouts and a cement baptismal pool that used to be on the grounds outside.

Member Rosetta Keels said, for many, it was the only church they knew growing up and it’s a tradition for them.

“If you were born and raised here, it was the only church you went to,” she said.

Lee Keels said the appeal is that “Everybody is like family.”

“We are famous for our prayer chain,” she said, as an example. “When one person is sick and they need prayer, they get on the prayer chain. They are all family.”

Jackson said the appeal is also “the fellowship of being together with people so many you’ve know for years.”

“It means a lot,” she said.

For members past and present, she said it is always a home.

“That’s why everybody away from here, when they talk about home they mean here.”