Church tour finds religion in historic spaces


Sunday school classes stand on the steps of Jerusalem United Methodist Church in Rockville, circa 1955. (Photo from Peerless Rockville Historic Preservation, Ltd.)
October 17, 2012

The Washington region is famous for its historic landmarks, and now there’s a guide to help visitors and locals learn more about the area’s African American churches.

The idea for the booklet, published last month by Heritage Montgomery, came last year during filming of the Heritage Montgomery Emmy award-winning Civil War video, “Life in a War Zone: Montgomery County During the Civil War 1861-1865.”

“We came across so many churches that were started right after the Civil War by freed slaves,” Peggy Erickson, executive director of Heritage Montgomery, said. “This story needs to be told rather quickly because the congregations are vanishing and the people are growing old. We need to get their stories out.”

The publication “Community Cornerstones: A Selection of Historic African American Churches in Montgomery County, Maryland,” published by the Heritage Tourism Alliance of Montgomery County in Germantown, gives the history of 21 standing Montgomery churches, all historically African American, most still in use but three that are no longer standing. Each church’s photo, address, contact information and history is included in the booklet along with a map of Montgomery showing their locations.

The churches grew out of the desire of freed slaves to establish places of worship in their communities.

St. Paul Community Church in Poolesville is down a narrow paved road at the intersection of Sugarland Road and Sugarland Lane.

“It started as Sugarland Forest Methodist Episcopal Church in 1871,” Gwen Reese, church trustee, said. “It doesn’t function as a church because of the low number of descendents in the community — it’s not enough to support a minister.”

Reese said that rather than let the church go to ruin, she and other descendents of the original community have started a mini-museum, filling the sanctuary of the small white building with artifacts, both religious and secular.

“We call it the Sugarland Ethno History Project,” she said.

Reese, who lives in Gaithersburg, and her cousin Suzanne Johnson of Landover are related through a great-grandfather who worked as a slave on a farm near White’s Ferry.

“Most of the land was purchased from the Quakers, who did not believe in slavery,” Reese said. “They purchased it at a reasonable rate with a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to pay off the land as they worked.”

Johnson recalled attending the church as a child, when she would spend summers in Sugarland at her grandfather’s home.

The original church burned down, like many other wooden churches in the county, and was replaced in 1893 with the one that still stands.

“The only thing that’s changed is, there were two potbellied stoves, and there were red velvet drapes hanging behind the altar,” Johnson said.

The cemetery behind the church still is used. A former community member was buried there recently, with others whose headstones date to the 1870s.

Erickson suggests visiting the cemeteries, as they play an important role in telling the community’s history.

“If you are going out to visit these churches, spend a little time in the cemeteries. The messages on the tombstones are just very endearing,” Erickson said. “Many are homemade, hand-painted on rocks, hand-painted on pieces of wood — they are very humble and heartfelt.”

The oldest African American congregation in the county is Sharp Street Methodist Episcopal Church, now Sharp Street United Methodist Church, in Sandy Spring.

In 1822, Thomas and Sophia Brooke deeded the land for a cemetery and house of worship to the Sharp Street trustees.

The church still is in use. It is the third church for the congregation; the second was built to house a growing membership and the third after a fire destroyed the wooden structure.

Each of the 21 churches in the booklet has its own story to tell and role in history.

Although Heritage Montgomery has been getting calls about the churches and the booklet, Erickson said there is no way to track church visits that were prompted by the publicity.

“The word is out, and it’s really been very well received,” she said.

The booklet is available online at HeritageMontgomery.org. Paper copies can be picked up at the group’s office, at 12515 Milestone Manor Lane in Germantown. Call 301-515-0753 for information.

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