BALTIMORE — When officials at Sunrise Senior Living were putting together plans to celebrate Black History Month, it was easy for them to turn to one of their most famous residents.
Reverend Marcus Wood, the last living student of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who along with a then-unknown King and 10 other black preachers integrated the Crozier Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania in the 1940s.
“About four or five months ago, he came to us with his wife, Bessie, who was also a close friend of Rosa Parks,” said Lynette Walsh, the executive director at Sunrise, which operates a location in Pikesville.
Walsh says that in their earlier days in Baltimore, the Wood’s would provide hospitality for King, Parks and other prominent African Americans because in the early-to-mid 1900s, hotels prohibited blacks.
“I don’t think the residents realized what a celebrity we had, but we’ve done plenty of tours here and I can’t tell you how many times people have recognized Rev. Wood,” Walsh said. “It’s been unbelievable throughout the community. He’s definitely a celebrity and with all that has been published; we make sure the residents know that they have a real civil rights hero here.”
A popular pastor for more than 60 years at Providence Baptist Church in Baltimore, it’s likely that it’s impossible for any to disagree that Wood counts as a true African American treasure. He’s living history.
Wood, 93, grew up in Gloucester, Virginia, as one of seven sons of Frank and Julia Wood. In 1937, he received a license to preach and officials at the Union Zion Baptist Church in Ware Neck, Virginia, ordained him three years later.
“I was in high school and I knew that the ministry is where I was going to be, there were no doubts,” Wood said. Wood would go on to serve as pastor at Wainwright Baptist Church in West Virginia and Bethlehem Baptist Church in New Jersey.
While in New Jersey, he made the decision to attend Crozier, where he earned his Master of Divinity degree. It’s also where he met King.
“We didn’t know that King would become the great figure he became, he was playful like the rest of us, but we also weren’t surprised because he always wanted to get people together,” Wood said. “King had a soft voice, but another reason all of us in the class knew he would do well was because his family had money and he was independent, he didn’t have a church to depend upon his living, so he could go around the country and preach.”
He says that King’s success and ultimate assassination were both predictable.
“He was the leader and he kept going to the south where we knew that he was so aggressive that there was a chance he’d be murdered,” Wood said.
Ten months before King was to preach at Wood’s church, an assassin’s bullet killed the icon.
The long-time pastor also recalled the first time King had a meal with a white person and when his wife taught King how to cook some of their favorite dishes.
“I was at the table with King when he had a meal with a white person, it was powerful. It took place at the seminary and it was a regular country meal,” Wood said. “My wife had told Martin about some of the ingredients to use in [certain meals] and he followed along.”
For his part, Wood also made his mark, preaching the gospel in several places and spreading the message of hope during the civil rights movement. He arrived at Providence Baptist Church in 1952. According to church officials, his visionary leadership resulted in numerous innovative activities and lots of progress.
Two years ago, when the church celebrated Wood’s 60th anniversary there, Governor Martin O’Malley led a contingent of more than 20 dignitaries to Providence to pay tribute to the civil rights activist.
“During some of the most volatile times in our nation’s history and in the face of tremendous adversity, Rev. Wood’s unconditional love for his fellow man has guided his life’s work every single day,” O’Malley said.
While Wood certainly misses his old friend and classmate, he says that it’s a testament to King that he gave his life for the betterment of so many.