Truman Pratt, founder of Orchard Street Methodist Church

Ancestry.com.1830 United States Federal Census. Baltimore, Maryland, Ward 12, p. 55.

The 1830 census indicated that Pratt was living in Ward 12 of Baltimore City. His household was composed of six free African Americans, probably Pratt and his children. Given that none of the free black female residents listed seem old enough to be his wife, it is likely that he was a widower at this time and had not yet remarried to Matilda Williams.

Ancestry.com.1840 United States Federal Census. Baltimore, Maryland, Ward 10, p. 55.

The 1840 census indicated that Pratt was living in Ward 10 of Baltimore City with four other people in his household. He was employed in manufacture or trade at this time.

Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census. Baltimore, Maryland, Ward 20, p. 29.

The 1850 census indicated that Pratt was living in Ward 20 of Baltimore City. (Between 1840 and 1850, Baltimore City had been gone from being divided into 12 wards to being divided into 20.) It lists his wife’s name as Malara (later records agree that her name was Matilda) and their fourteen-year-old daughter Rebecca.

Ancestry.com 1860 United States Federal Census. Baltimore, Maryland, Ward 20, p. 82.

The 1850 census indicated that Pratt had not moved. Here, his wife is identified as “Matelda.” Their daughter Rebecca is included as is their son Eli and a grandson, Louis Pratt. His occupation is listed as “carter”.

Ancestry.com. Baltimore, Maryland City Directory, 1877.

In the last year of his life, Pratt, or more likely a grandson with the same name, is identified as working as a sawyer. This record indicates Pratt lived on 1 Elder Alley, which was Pratt’s address in 1876 and at the time of his death.

Ancestry.com. Obituaries. Death of a Centenarian: Trueman Pratt.

This obituary provides the most detailed biographical information found about Pratt so far and rests on a biography of Pratt written some years earlier by Magnus Lewis Robinson. The obituary notes that Robinson identified Pratt’s birthday as  March 22, 1775 at Hild’s Light in West River, Anne Arundel County near the Methodist Hope Chapel. Robinson identified Colonel John Howard as his first master and claims that the man bought Pratt for his son but does not identify who sold Pratt to John Edgar Howard. The obituary adds that Pratt stayed with Howard until after the Battle of North Point in the War of 1812, after which Howard sold him to John Roy, the owner of a hardware store on the corner of Baltimore and Holliday Street. Pratt then ran away from Roy, spent several years in Boston, returned to Baltimore, and negotiated his freedom with the help of a Baltimore banker, a Mr. Brice who also had a farm in Anne Arundel county where Pratt worked for several more years until he paid off his debt to Brice. He apparently worked as a shoemaker and a carter and began holding prayer meetings at his house in Baltimore in 1825. In 1837, he gave the first $20 to the building fund for a church building. By the time the church was rebuilt in 1859, its congregation was one of the largest in the city, an indication of its significance to Baltimore’s African American population. This source makes many claims that cannot be verified with other records, perhaps due to missing papers, though it derives its claims from Pratt’s biography, which was written during his lifetime and probably with input from “Father Pratt,” who would have certainly known what happened during his lifetime.

Archives of Maryland Online. Volume 491. “Matchett’s Baltimore Director for 1827,” p. 211.

The Baltimore Directory for 1827 provides geographical information for Pratt. It indicates that he was working as a “cordwaincer,” or leather worker and living at West St. Paul’s Street near Centre Road. This is also the first official record of Pratt living in Baltimore as a free man.

Baltimore City Health Department, Bureau of Vital Statistics (Death Record) December 1, 1877. “Trueman Pratt.”

This record tells us that Truman Pratt (here spelled “Trueman Pratt”) died at 1 Elder Alley, which was located close to the Orchard Street Methodist Church, of old age and debility. The certificate provides further geographic information by recording his birthplace as West River, Anne Arundel, MD. His third wife, Matilda, was still alive at the time of his death, as he is described as “married.” The certificate also tells us that he was still employed as a carter at the time of his death and describes his race as “mulatto.” Finally, the certificate states that he was buried on December 4, 1877. Unfortunately, the physician’s handwriting, which identified the place of burial, is illegible.

Baltimore County Court (Land Records) TK 295, 1839, pp. 352-355.

This land record is the formal deed that leased the property on which the black Methodist congregation that had been meeting at Pratt’s house in Baltimore City could build a church for worship. The property, located Orchard and beginning by the corner of the aforementioned street and Elder Alley, had initially belonged to Margaret Moore, widow of Henry Moore and administrator of his estate, but the courts turned it over to Kirkpatrick Ewing and his wife Malvina, who seems to have been the official heiress to the grounds. The couple leased it to Truman Pratt (here referred to as “Trueman Le Pratt”) and two other free black men, Cyrus Moore and Basil Hall. The trio had to pay $80.50 per year, divided into two payments of $40.25 in March and September, in order to retain the building, which was leased to them and their heirs and executive administrators for the next ninety-nine years, upon which the heirs and administrators could renew the lease. If these payments were more than thirty days in arrears, the Ewings and Malvina’s heirs could repossess the property until the tenants paid their rent, plus interest that accumulated due to late payment. Pratt, Moore, and Hall also had to pay $20 to the Ewings for the cost of the suit. This record demonstrates that free black people could legally acquire property to build their churches in Baltimore, but it also shows that they would likely only be able to lease the property and be required to pay a high annual rent.

Baltimore County Court (Land Records) TK 295, 1840, pp. 355-356.

This land record from 7 January 1840 completed the transfer of the Orchard Street property for the chapel to Truman Pratt, Cyrus Moore, and Basil Hall. In addition to affirming Kirkpatrick and Malvina Ewing’s leasing of the property to the three free aforementioned African Americans, the new deed also made Cato Blake, Mark Maybury, and Samuel Elliot trustees and executive administrators of the property, along with Moore, Hall, and Pratt. Furthermore, the deed formally declared that the property would be the site of a Methodist church and could therefore by subject to surveillance by other Methodist preachers and ministers. This record can be used to show that black Methodists were subject to overview by other (probably white) Methodists and that African American worship was taken seriously enough at the time to be worthy of overview.

Church Slave Tunnel ‘Reopens.’” Baltimore Sun. 28 July 1976.

This article connects the Orchard Street Church and Truman Pratt, here identified as a slave who ran away to Boston before returning to Baltimore purchasing his freedom from his final master, to the Underground Railroad. It talks about a set of tunnels discovered underneath the old church and speculates that they might prove that the church was a stop on Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad route.

“Louis Pratt, Father of Douglass High Principle, Dies at Age of 82.” Baltimore Afro-American. 12 February 1938.

This article records the death of Louis Pratt, one of Truman Pratt’s sons. It provides genealogical information about Truman Pratt, here referred to as a reverend.

“Matchett’s Directory for Baltimore.” 1831.

This edition of the Baltimore Directory indicates that Pratt had moved and possibly changed occupations since 1827. Here, he is listed as living on Pierce Street east of Cove and working as a laborer.

“Over a Hundred Years Old.” Baltimore Sun. 24 February 1876.

This source deals with Truman Pratt and Magnus Lewis Robinson, who wrote a brief biographical sketch of the freedman. Robinson, according to the article, credibly supported claims that Pratt, in 1876, was nearing his 101st birthday as he had been born on 22 March 1877 at Hild’s Light near the Methodist church, Hope’s Chapel, in Anne Arundel County. The article confirms that Pratt was owned by John Eager Howard, the Maryland governor and revolutionary war hero and his son, and then by John Roy and a Mr. Brice (who first name remains unconfirmed), from whom he finally purchased his freedom. Pratt also fought in the War of 1812 at the Battle of North Point alongside the younger Howard. The article adds that Pratt was the founder of the Orchard Street Methodist Church and was therefore known as “Father Pratt.” Finally, it affirms that he was, at nearly 101 years of age, blind but still strong and mobile. The article also provides geographical information and lets us know that Pratt lived on 1 Elder Alley in close proximity to the church.

Robinson, Magnus Lewis. ‪Sketch of the Life of Truman Pratt: The Centenarian, Including the History of the Orchard-Street M. E. Church, Baltimore, Md. : Also, an Appendix Containing an Account of the First Colored Methodist Episcopal Conference, with Brief Sketches of Its Members, Father Pratt’s Centennial Tea Party, &c. James Young, 1876.

I have not yet been able to obtain a copy of this brief, 24-page biographical sketch of Truman Pratt, but details from ancestry.com and newspaper articles hint at the contents. Among information already discussed, it reveals that Pratt married three times, first to Nellie Brown in 1795 (d. ~1805), Nellie Smith in 1807, and Matilda Williams in 1835. He had children with Brown and Williams. Additionally, it appears that he escaped from John Roy with the help of one Thomas Watkins, Esq. As I continued my research in more depth, I hope to track down a copy of this elusive text and verify as much of the information presented as possible with other sources.

“Washington Methodist Episcopal Conference.” Baltimore Sun. 16 March 1876.

This article talks about a conference of Methodist bishops that met at the Orchard Street Church to discuss religious issues and to commemorate its founder. The last paragraph notes that “Father” Truman Pratt, at the age of 101, had a seat at this conference. The Washington Methodists’ choice of his church for a meeting spot and his inclusion suggests that, even in his old age, he was a respected member of the black Baltimore and Methodist communities.

 

Adapted from Annotated Bibliography for Truman Pratt, founder of Orchard Street Methodist Church and Possible Conductor on the Underground Railroad by Allyson Schuele

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