History Brought Us to this Moment

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2012 was chosen as the year in which to celebrate the 60th year of our congregation convening in Baltimore based on our 1952 incorporation as a non-profit organization termed the Baltimore Ethical Society (BES).

In 1950 the formation of our fellowship – referred to in that first “informal” year simply as the Baltimore Group – under founder Ken Milford’s initiative began to take shape. Impressed by his discovery that year of the New York Ethical Society, Milford quickly realized that what it offered would well replace the traditional religious experience he and others had been seeking to supplant.

“…for the purpose to engage as a non-sectarian religious and educational fellowship without formal creed or dogma which aims to unite men in the belief that the greatest spiritual values are to be found in raising the quality of human relationships and to promote the intellectual and temporal welfare of its members and the community at large. To hold religious assemblies and children’s classes.” — wording of the incorporation of the Baltimore Ethical Society under the laws of the State of Maryland signed April 21, 1952

Among the early “settlers” who populated that Group were Jerome D. Frank, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School and author of the influential Persuasion and Healing: A Comparative Study of Psychotherapy and Sanity and Survival: Psychological Aspects of War and Peace; a Goucher College senior, Zelda Goldberg (active in BES almost until her death in 2006); Roy Patterson, a shoe repairer who taught in vocational schools and the first from the black community to join; and Pell Kangas. Both Patterson and Kangas – along with Milford who had become the first president – signed and witnessed the incorporation documents during the Group’s first “formal” year 1951-1952, the year Dr. Gilbert and Marian Banfield and Abe and Eva Granek joined and the Society became thirty-two strong with a $1850 budget.

Thanks to diligent work by Gordon Stills, who last year researched BES’s historical origins as captured by the local papers, we now possess the October 6, 1951 Baltimore Afro-American article, which announced under the headline “Bi-Racial Sunday School Assembly Formed Here” that under the organization and sponsorship of the Baltimore Ethical Society “Baltimore has gained something unique in the way of race relations…the Children’s Sunday Assembly, composed of youngsters from a variety of racial and religious backgrounds.” (read full text here) Among the students in the early years were Diane Milford, Ken’s daughter, now Diane Ulman, who delivered the platform at our 2011 membership meeting and the Banfield siblings Sondra and Leslie, whose sister Karen Banfield Evans also spoke at the 2011 meeting.

“Since our Sunday school was integrated from its beginning in 1950, our children learned the lesson of true equality of all peoples. It was a rare opportunity not available hardly anywhere else in Baltimore. It has had a life long impact on these children. With teachers like Marian Banfield, Helena Wright, Sarah Milford, June Kangas and Bert Booth [who also spoke at our 2011 membership meeting and sadly died just a few short months later]…Our children will never forget them. Marian Banfield continued directing the Sunday School until the last year of her life.” — from Pell Kangas’s platform “37 years of the Baltimore Ethical Society: Remembrances and Commentary”

The importance of BES being at the forefront as the city’s first integrated religious organization and establishing the city’s first integrated Sunday school can be put in perspective. 1954 and 1955 are given the distinction of being the years that birthed the modern civil rights movement, its existence sparked by the crucial Supreme Court “Brown” decisions speeding segregation in public schools. With the 1954 decision the only segregated Southern city whose school board without dissent voted for prompt compliance with the law was Baltimore. Exactly 20 years following that, Antero Pietila (a 2011 platform speaker and the recent author of Not in My Neighborhood) noted that in doing so “The board’s leadership saved the city from the kinds of ugly confrontations at the school house doors that in many other segregated cities embittered race relations well into the 1960’s.”

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