The 100-year-old gravestones in the weathered cemetery on Howard Chapel Road just outside Brookeville are faded by time, but as Mable Thomas walked across the earth where her ancestors are buried, her memories of the stories she was told about them as a child were strong and clear.
"We were told about our ancestors who were led away in slavery," said Thomas, who visits the family cemetery often. "We were told about our great-grandmother who was bought out of slavery by her husband, a free man; a grand-uncle who was sold into slavery before the Civil War and came back. We're just trying to keep our history alive."
Thomas's family -- the Howards and the Hollands -- trace their roots in upcounty Montgomery to the early 1800s. Their story is one of determination, persistence and preservation of family unity, even though the family is spread across the United States and Canada as a result of slavery.
The Howard Chapel cemetery -- and the nearby deteriorating houses that sit on what was once family-owned property -- is one of 150 African American historical sites in Montgomery County recently documented in a study by the Lincoln Park Historical Foundation/Society.
The cemetery is included in a map of the sites, which were largely compiled by Anita Neal Powell, 48, founder and president of the grass-roots historical society. The society operates from her home in Rockville's historically black Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Compiling the map was necessary, Powell said, to preserve the African American heritage and locate the many lost and overlooked historically black communities of Montgomery County.
Powell, who works for the federal government, spent five years compiling the sites, using a $3,400 grant from the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission. Montgomery County government printed the map.
Powell and family members hope the county will designate Howard Chapel cemetery and the surrounding land a historic site.
County officials say the process is ongoing and a decision could be made by the end of the year. Powell also would like to see several other sites receive historical recognition from the county and state.
"This area is unique because of the Underground Railroad-Canada connection to these two families," Powell said. "When I think of Montgomery County, I think of a lily-white area, but there are a lot of hidden black communities here, lots of history here.
"If we didn't have this history, we'd never know the significance of this cemetery or these houses."
Because of sympathetic Quakers, Montgomery County served as an Underground Railroad starting point to Canada and other destinations, with stops that included Sandy Spring and more than 20 other locations in the county. The Underground Railroad was the network of safe houses used to harbor slaves seeking freedom in the North before the Civil War.
Sites listed on the map include neighborhoods, churches, parks and schools that stretch across the county from Poolesville to Bethesda. It includes a historic black district in Chevy Chase, Burnt Mills Colored School in White Oak, Smith's Tavern in Muncaster Mill and slave quarters and Underground Railroad stops in Colesville, Whites Ferry, Dickerson, Germantown, Rockville and Hyattstown.
Many of the sites are indicated by name only on the map because buildings and identifying landmarks no longer exist.
Ross M. Kimmel, a supervisor with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who first learned of the Howard Chapel site about 20 years ago, said researching Montgomery County's black history is challenging but rewarding.
"It's great history and it's out here, you just have to dig for it," Kimmel said.
Michele Naru, a preservation planner for the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission, started surveys of Howard Chapel in 1999 and began formulating a history of the property.
Howard Chapel, she said, is "an important African American resource within the county," but one of many significant historical sites Powell was able to uncover.
"It's a wonderful evolution of where we've been and where we are now," Naru said.
The Howard Chapel property is on 204 acres owned by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and is part of the Patuxent River State Park, near the Howard County line. The site includes the cemetery, a primary residence, known as the Gaither/Howard house, which was built in 1790; two additions to the original house; and a second stone residence. The property once included Howard Chapel Church.
The property originally was owned by the Gaither family. In 1857, a slave and field foreman of the Gaither family, Enoch George Howard, bought freedom for himself and his wife, Harriet, with $3,000 of his savings, obtained from selling produce he cultivated from a small plot of land that had been given to him.
Later, the couple bought freedom for their five children. A few years later, they bought the Gaither/Howard house and 289 acres of land from the Gaither family. During his lifetime, Enoch Howard acquired at least 600 acres of land and donated some of it for a school.
When he died in 1895, the Montgomery County Sentinel wrote that "he was an old and highly respected citizen."
Other relatives of Enoch Howard owned by the Gaither family escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad and changed their name to Holland.
"I think this history and this area symbolize roots, family unity and family heritage," said Thomas, who still lives in Cloverly, where she grew up. "We have reunions every year because we want the young people to know they have family even if the family is scattered across the county and Canada."
Thomas, along with other relatives, started the family reunions in 1982 and the event has attracted hundreds of people over the years.
For the past few years, Thomas, a descendant of one of Enoch Howard's sisters, and other family members have been caring for the cemetery grounds because county and state officials don't have the funds to continue the upkeep.
"I do wish they would put a fence around the cemetery because at least 12 headstones have been stolen," Thomas said.
John Smith, a descendent of a nephew of Enoch Howard who works as an adviser to County Council member Philip Andrews (D-Rockville), said he looks forward to the family reunions -- which alternate between Montgomery County and Canada -- because it continues the family connection and reminds the younger Howards and Hollands about their legacy.
"This history is so important, and important for young people, because it grounds them in their roots," said Smith, standing in front of the cemetery and proudly displaying a photograph of a recent family reunion in Gaithersburg attended by more than 400 family members.
"It says to me -- and others -- that there is a great tradition here that has been hidden, but now it is coming to the surface," he said.
Copies of the map, "African American Heritage, a Journey Through History: A Guide to African American Sites and Attractions," are available at Montgomery County's Conference and Visitors Center, libraries, regional services centers, the county executive's office and the Lincoln Park Historical Foundation/Society. For more information, call 240-777-2500 or 301-251-2747.