It's a tiny white structure, weathered by time, damaged by vandals, on a rural road in the small town of Glenn Dale. Some people thought it should have been demolished long ago. But to understand Dorsey Chapel and the three-year fight to preserve it is to retell the story of Prince George's County's segregationist past--and the culture and pride that flourished in its black communities despite all of that.
Dorsey Chapel was the place where Glenn Dale's black Methodists worshiped on Sundays, while their white counterparts attended Perkins Chapel, a mile away. It went on like this from 1900 until 1969, when the members of Dorsey no longer could afford to support a pastor at the salary level set by the Methodist Church. They were then allowed to merge with the Perkins congregation to form the Glenn Dale United Methodist Church.
Many of Dorsey's members never did join the Glenn Dale United congregation, which worshiped in a new brick church at Good Luck and Springfield roads, next to Perkins; still others from Dorsey left Glenn Dale after they joined, having never felt at home in the new church.
For the next 14 years, Dorsey remained vacant. Termites and rainstorms took their toll, and eventually Glenn Dale lost its liability insurance coverage on the building. In October 1980, Glenn Dale's congregation decided the best thing to do would be to have the fire department burn Dorsey Chapel down.
Gladys Bell, who used to worship at Dorsey, remembers her reaction to the news. "I was horrified. I'd never heard of such a thing, a church being deliberately burned down."
Bell said she and others from Dorsey heard about the event the day before it was supposed to take place. "We prayed all night long," she recalled. "And at nine in the morning, one of us got through to a commissioner of the Prince George's Planning Board . He got it stopped."
Since then, Bell and about 19 others who had attended Dorsey formed a group called Friends of Dorsey Chapel and have been negotiating with the planning board to preserve the chapel as a historic site of special significance to the county's blacks.
Last month, their efforts came one step closer to realization when the planning board agreed to restore the chapel, subject to certain conditions.
Cecelia Snowden, one of the Friends of Dorsey Chapel, said the group wants it to become a "museum of sorts" dedicated to the history of Glenn Dale's black community.
She said the group also wants the chapel to be used once a year for a "homecoming service" for the members of the old congregation. Most of them--Bell is a secretary for the Justice Department and Snowden is a statistician with the Department of Health and Human Services, for instance--work for the federal government. Many moved out of Glenn Dale in the '60s to nearby communities such as Lanham and Seabrook, seeking newer, better housing, but still worshiped at Dorsey Chapel, Snowden said.
"You'd have to have lived this experience and be black" to understand the sentimental value of the chapel, said Gladys Bell. "We lived in this little town called Glenn Dale, blacks were relegated to a small section called Brookland. Basically, we had nothing but ourselves and our church."
Bell's observations are echoed in a report on Dorsey Chapel written by John M. Walton Jr., a planning board historian.
"The black history of the county, with the exception of the modern era," the report says, "is for the most part not the story of outstanding individuals or events, but is rather the history of blacks as a separate cultural group within the county, and their lifeways."
After three years of negotiations, the Glenn Dale church last March agreed to donate the chapel and the acre of land it stands on to the county, if the county would agree to certain conditions.
Under those conditions, the chapel must not be used for regular worship services and it cannot be sold to another religious organization. Title to the property would revert to Glenn Dale United if the building is somehow destroyed before it is restored and the title must not be transferred to another party until the chapel has been fully restored.
"We are willing to hand it over, but we want to be sure they'll do something with it," said the Rev. Galen R. Menne, Glenn Dale United's pastor.
Late last month, the planning board said it would agree to the first two stipulations only if a five-year limit is placed on them. It agreed to the third stipulation if it could be reimbursed for the funds it might use for the restoration. The board agreed unconditionally to the fourth stipulation.
Menne said his congregation will have to vote on the changes the planning board proposed and such a vote probably wiil not take place before September.
Meanwhile, Bell, Snowden and the others say they are hopeful, but still concerned, that all will go well eventually.
"How much longer do we have to wait?" for a firm decision, Snowden asked the planning board commissioners last month. "Until the building falls down?"