Rona Kobell, a longtime Chesapeake Bay reporter, is a writer and editor at Maryland Sea Grant.
Just 15 miles past Cambridge, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is a town so small it has already disappeared from most maps. Soon it could disappear altogether.
Smithville, an African American settlement that dates to the 19th century, had 100 residents a few decades ago. Today, four remain. Its historic Gothic Revival church, New Revived United Methodist Church, stands uncomfortably close to a marsh inching ever nearer to its wooden frame. Only a cluster of wetland plants separates the marsh from Smithville’s historic cemetery next to the church, where the town’s founding fathers and mothers — Wheatley, Wilson, Cornish — have been lovingly laid to rest.
Climate change has brought rising waters, drowning lands and eroding shorelines to cities and towns all over the world. New York, New Orleans and Norfolk are spending billions among them to fortify their shorelines, adding green space and parks to absorb water like sponges, changing their building codes to require higher foundations and repaving sidewalks and catchment areas with porous pavement to alleviate storm-water problems. Few doubt that these investments are worth it. These cities are cultural and economic centers: Why wouldn’t we do all we can to preserve what’s there and to strengthen their infrastructure for the future?
Climate change has come to Smithville, too, but we don’t seem as certain about investments there.
Over the past several decades, Smithville and other towns in the marshy expanses of Dorchester County lost jobs as canneries, seafood-packing houses and produce farms went out of business. The children who grew up skating on the frozen marsh left for jobs in Cambridge, Baltimore and Atlanta; many of their abandoned homes now have standing water beneath them. Two of the Smithville residents who remain, Luther and Doris Cornish, have sought help since the 1980s to save their cemetery. Both in their late 80s, they wonder whether they will live to see it preserved.
The church building is still in good shape, and its Sunday service draws about 30 worshipers from around the region. But you don’t have to look far to see what would happen without quick action. On back roads through Deal Island and around Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, similar Methodist churches are boarded up, abandoned, with pools of water hugging fractured headstones. Malone’s Church, the first of four African American parishes to be built after the Civil War, has fallen into disrepair. Two others, Christ Rock Methodist Episcopal Church and St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, have closed their doors, too. Those congregations eventually combined to form New Revived, formerly Jefferson Methodist, which was built in 1876 and then rebuilt in 1925 on its current site after a fire.
Already, the church deacon has reported mold on the outside walls. Occasionally, when churchgoers dig a new grave, they hit water coming up from the ground.
What do we lose when we lose places such as Smithville? We lose a physical anchor to the narrative of a proud, free people. Smithville is 18 miles from Brodess Farm, where Harriet Tubman was born. The woods, marshes and canals between those places — and all through the county — sheltered escaping slaves on their long slog to freedom. And after emancipation, towns such as Smithville became beacons of hope for prosperity and independence.
Last year, Maryland Sea Grant worked with two filmmakers from Morgan State University and a group of anthropologists from the University of Maryland to make “Smithville,” a film about the town’s predicament. In our interviews, we found that while politicians in Washington may be divided over climate change and its causes, the residents of Smithville and their extended families are not. They understand a change has come to their landscape; they can connect it directly with a warming climate from excessive greenhouse-gas emissions. They speak both of mitigation, or reducing global emissions to slow climate change, and adaptation: putting a berm around the property, or perhaps a living shoreline up against it.
They would also like to lift the church a few feet. They don’t know how to pay for it. Dorchester County has no money for such projects and can offer only technical assistance; the state has limited funds and many communities competing for them.
The Chesapeake Bay has already lost a lot of land and history. Dozens of islands have washed away. The people of Smithville see it happening, understand why it’s occurring and want to hold back the water so they can hold on to their past. Time will tell if they can.