Ebenezer Baptist Church – Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site –
~~ In honor of Martin Luther King Day, January 21st, 2013 ~~
During its long and celebrated history, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia has served its community with a commitment to faith, outreach, and activism. Most famously known as the church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pastored, Ebenezer is part of the National Historic Site dedicated to the slain Civil Rights leader. The 35-acre Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site was established in 1980 to celebrate Dr. King’s contributions to the civil rights movement, and to preserve several historic structures.
The congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church was founded in 1886 and, up until 1914, met in a series of church buildings (and even a store front), steadily increasing in size to accommodate the growing number of members. From 1914-1921, services were held under a temporary roof in the basement at the corner of Jackson Street and Auburn Avenue while the main structure was being built above it. In 1922 the church building was completed and it served as the congregation’s home for the next 77 years.
In addition to Ebenezer Baptist Church, visitors to the National Historic Site can tour The King Center and museum, enjoy the International World Peace Rose Garden, or reflect on events at the tombs of Dr. and Mrs. King. All are located a short distance from the church. Just over one block east of Ebenezer, at 501 Auburn Ave., is the birth home of Martin Luther King, Jr. Guided tours of the Birth Home are free and offered most days of the year.
The Lessons of a Witness Tree…
Witness… to be present, to observe, to have personal knowledge of an event or an experience.
The term witness tree dates back to the European settlement of the United States. During the early 1800’s, prominent trees were used as corner markers when land was surveyed and divided. These prominent trees were sometimes marked with paint, or a wedge or carving might be cut into the trunk. The tree would then ‘witness’ the property’s boundary.
A more contemporary use for the term refers to a tree whose location and estimated age place it in proximity to history. Throughout the United States, Witness Trees have been recognized and protected in historical sites such as Shiloh, Tennessee and Appomattox, Virginia. But why are these trees so important? Although rocks, sandy beaches, and cliff faces have also been present for countless historical and important events, trees are often thought of differently. Trees have life. They help to give life. And trees die.
Through contact with a witness tree and, indirectly, its ancient roots, we touch the past that it inhabited. Our connection to the past is strengthened by the tree’s continued life. When the tree’s age is estimated at more than 150 years and its location is Cemetery Hill on Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg Battlefield, its significance is difficult to quantify. The tree of note is a Honey Locust and resides just 150 feet from the platform on which President Abraham Lincoln stood to deliver the Gettysburg Address.
The Battle of Gettysburg, often called the turning point in the American Civil War, was fought July 1-3, 1863. Fighting raged in the town streets, farm fields, and surrounding countryside. In just three days Confederate and Union forces amassed a total of 50,000* casualties between them. If the Battle was to be fought today and the same percentage of population applied, the casualty rate would be a staggering 491,000 soldiers.
The Union won the Battle, and eventually the war, but losses were heavy on all sides. Throughout the three days of fighting, the aftermath, clean up, and burial of the dead, Cemetery Hill was a focal point of activity. As the center of the Union battle line, Cemetery Hill became the site of the Soldier’s National Cemetery. A silent witness to it all was the Honey Locust tree.
On August 7, 2008, a fast moving storm hit the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania area. The Honey Locust Witness Tree was severely damaged by the storm’s strong winds and 70-80% of it was destroyed. Some media outlets, and even a local historian, seemed to give the tree up for dead. Fortunately, National Park Service Officials made a wise decision. They removed the debris but allowed the tree to stand.
Today, three years after the storm, not only is the Honey Locust still alive, it is thriving. Green shoots, new thin branches, and healthy leaves partially obscure the tree’s broken top. The canopy has begun to fill in, and its once imposing profile has started to return.
The fact that the tree insisted on living, in spite of the damage it had suffered, conveys a powerful message. A tangible, living connection to the past remains intact, to help remind us who we are and where we come from. It begs the question, ‘how much more is there to be learned from it… about our world, about ourselves, and about each other?’
As their numbers diminish, the significance of each Witness Tree is increased. Eventually, they all will be gone. Until then, the lessons we learn in remembering the past that they witnessed are lessons which can guide us into the future.
A hot gray wind blew in from the South
and bore down on Cemetery Hill.
Aloft in your branches a sentry cried out,
“Today, Boys, it’s kill or be killed!”
High on the ridge, you stood at attention
and watched as they fell by the score.
Their blood rained down and soaked your roots
in three days, 50,000 and more.
Shade from your leaves sheltered the wounded
their bravery more precious than gold.
They sacrificed and paid the cost
so many would never grow old.
Brothers and uncles, fathers and sons
blood lines forever divided.
No man was spared the torment of conscience
when Confederate and Union collided.
Strategies failed and the South turned around
when their colors went down in defeat.
Your limbs formed a crutch for a soldier to walk
the slow, painful march of defeat.
More than 500 seasons since then
and your branches again cradle birds.
What would you tell us of those fallen men
if leaves, trunk, and bark could form words?
“Yankee or Rebel, North or South
matters not from which side they came.
To the cannon ball or the bayonet
flesh and blood is all the same.”
Notes & Resources:
*Casualty numbers for the Battle of Gettysburg vary from about 46,000 to 51,000 depending on the reference source. The three references used for this article sited casualty numbers at approximately 50,000.
- Gettysburg National Military Park : https://www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm
- Gettysburg Daily - Witness Tree article (including original photos of the storm damaged tree) dated August 10, 2008 https://www.gettysburgdaily.com/gettysburg-witness-tree-damaged-in-national-cemetery/
- Learn how to estimate the age of a living tree:
** Copyright © 2011 – Annette “Ace” Eshleman **