Where We Live

Long Memories in Land of the Freed

Elizabeth Day has always lived in this 1889 home where she was born.
Elizabeth Day has always lived in this 1889 home where she was born. (Photos By Tony Glaros For The Washington Post)

By Tony Glaros
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 15, 2006

Squeezed by the thickening sweep of suburbia, Muirkirk remains a slower spot. Residents of the northeastern Prince George's County community still find time to spin stories, keep the nearby graveyard tidy and set the table at church suppers.

Old Muirkirk Road remains the neighborhood's focal point, a slice of relative calm between Beltsville and Laurel. The 15 houses on the shady, winding street vary in age and style, from 100 years old to a contemporary rancher.

Those houses actually are a small residential pocket within Muirkirk, a larger area dominated by industrial parks and other commercial uses. Muirkirk itself has a Beltsville ZIP code.

Growing up, Marsha Brown referred to the neighborhood as Rossville, a name that dates back to when it was settled by freed slaves. She still does. But Rossville, she explained, was always considered a subdivision of Muirkirk. "It was never something that was official. I guess you could say Old Muirkirk Road has become the central area of the community. The church is there. The schools used to be there."

The American Legion hall is around the corner on Muirkirk Road, she pointed out. At one time, she said, Muirkirk even had its own post office down by the railroad tracks.

The signs of the older community are still there in the form of the historic graveyard and the church across the street, Queen's Chapel United Methodist. The congregation traces its roots to 1870, when the first structure went up where the cemetery is today, said Brown, who wrote a book about the history of the church.

"There was already a cemetery for blacks there before the church," she explained as she walked through the sloping graveyard that overlooks Muirkirk Road. "The oldest grave was there well before the Civil War." In 1953, the congregation laid a cornerstone for its second structure, directly across the street. Plans are now in the works to expand the current building.

To accommodate the overflow, Sunday worship services are held at nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School on Ammendale Road.

Set back from the road, nearly camouflaged by a cushion of leafy trees, is Abraham Hall. Built around 1888, it is one of the two oldest buildings in the neighborhood and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The white-frame, two-story building with its neatly painted green shutters "was built by a secret order after the Civil War," Brown said. "After the Civil War, you found small fraternal orders that helped blacks out. Blacks didn't have a lot of money for emergencies, so people pooled their resources." The order, known as Rebecca Lodge No. 6, was part of the Benevolent Sons and Daughters of Abraham.

Around the corner from Abraham Hall is the other oldest house in Muirkirk that, according to Brown, "has retained its historical integrity." Built in 1889, it is where Elizabeth Day and her 13 siblings were born and raised. Day, who is Brown's aunt, has lived in the yellow house for all of her 82 years.

Still robust, she's frequently behind the wheel of her blue Ford Taurus, making the short drive to the grocery store or to church to cook and clean. Like many of her friends and neighbors, Day gets pleasure from slipping into nostalgia.

"I live better now," she said, "but in some ways I miss the old days." Day, who is retired from the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, remembered spending lazy afternoons picking blackberries. "It was country. We had a farm. We raised cabbage, potatoes, beans."

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