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The Myrtle Baptist Neighborhood: A Truly Historic Place

Posted December 8, 2008 09:45 AM


By Ben Terris
In 1875, nine African-American Baptists whose families had lived in Newton since it was a stronghold on the Underground Railroad built a church. Now, 133 years later, the Myrtle Baptist Church and the surrounding neighborhood has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

The city first identified the neighborhood as a candidate for the NHRP eight years ago when students from a Boston University preservation studies program found that this historically African-American neighborhood—which runs along Curve Street in Auburndale and consists of 28 houses, many of which have been inhabited by the same family for nearly a century—has had a storied history within the community.

“Between the vibrant community and the church, both of which has been there for years, there is no doubt that the place is historic,” said Katy Holmes, the preservation planner for Newton. “It’s time the neighborhood be recognized on a national level, and I think it looks really good that in the next couple of months it will be.”

Holmes said that if it is put on the NHRP the neighborhood would be safeguarded from outside development. The construction of the Mass Pike demolished nearly half of the original community in the 1960s.

The NHRP will not place any new restrictions on renovations local residents can do on their homes, said Holmes.

“Any change to any house more than 50 years old needs to be approved by the city anyway,” she said. “The only limitations will be on federally funded projects that might have a negative impact on the area.”

Many of the buildings in the neighborhood have maintained the same basic structure since they were built in the late 19th and early 20th century. The houses on the block range in size and style from single-family Colonial Revivals to two three story Second Empire.

The church itself, the second manifestation of the building after sparks from the abutting railroad tracks burnt the first down, showcases a three-story front-gabled steeple and two large stained glass windows from the late 1800’s. Many congregants mistake the stained glass window behind the pulpit as being a black Jesus. It is really meant to depict Philip Baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch.

Reverend Howard Haywood —who has been a lifelong member of the church, and it’s reverend at the church since 1985— believes the recognition is much deserved.

“Imagine nine people who worked so hard to get this church built, and that it’s lasted through depressions, through war times, the turnpike, and it’s still here and still going strong,” Haywood said. “It’s living history.”

Haywood said, however, that there’s much more to the area than just an old church and some old houses.

“When cities or towns make historic districts it’s usually more about the age, or architecture, or one famous person used to live there,” he said. “Here’s it’s really about the people. It’s about the tenacity of a small minority of people who maintained good lifestyles under not the best conditions. There’s more to Newton than the fact that we had houses in 1870, more than celebrating structure, it’s time to celebrate community.”

Some families have been a part of this Curve Street neighborhood for decades.

Members of William Turner’s family have lived at 25 Curve St. since 1938, and the home even played host to regular dinners with Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was in Divinity school in the 1950s.

“I think it’s great that the area is being recognized,” Turner, 69, said. “We have managed to have a community built on love and peace, and it will be nice to be recognized and protected from outside development that might try to disrupt what we have had for 130 good years.”

When the locals here speak of disruption, they speak from experience. Some members of the community, like Leslie Lewis, were around in 1962 when the Mass Pike redefined the confines of the neighborhood.

“Before the pike came, us young folks could walk anywhere,” said Lewis who was 13 at the time. “We used to walk to school down the road there, past a little broom factory that used to be owned by the minister and all these houses that were owned by neighbors we all knew. Then the pike came and really did a number on the neighborhood. But I’ll tell you what, the community bent, but it did not break with the building of the road. It might have separated us, but the spirit remained. People returned to come to church, and we stayed like a family.”

Haywood agreed that the community was able to rebound even after the initial shock and impact of the highway.

“I’ll never forget the move,” he said. “I came back from work on the Monday after we moved, and every home and house on the street was gone including mine. There were 25 homes and 34 families that were disrupted when the turnpike came through. We thought the church had lost them, but they came back every Sunday from wherever they moved and even brought new people with them.”

Haywood said that the Curve Street neighborhood’s resilience echoes an American story, not just and African-American story.

“I think this community is a microcosm of achieving the American dream,” he said. “This community shows that any community, whether it be African-American, Jewish, Irish, et cetera can be viable. This is the story of Newton as a whole, of the country as a whole, for the community could only exist with the help of what surrounded it.”

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