by Anne Raines, Capital Grants and Loans Program Administrator
Just up the hill from the main street of Sharpsburg is a modest one-room board and batten structure, neatly painted white and crowned by a small bell tower, standing watch over a small and well-tended cemetery.
About 20 miles away, in the center of the city of Frederick, a quiet acre serves as the final resting place of over 1,500 individuals, commemorated by a prominent granite marker.
The sites, as different as they may seem, serve as significant monuments to the African American experience in western Maryland.
First, the Sharpsburg story. In 1865 a circuit preacher for the black Methodist Episcopal Church, a former Virginia slave named John R. Tolson, founded a mission church in Sharpsburg, a stone’s throw from the site of the Battle of Antietam. A small congregation of African Americans joined hands in 1867 to build a house of worship they called Tolson’s Chapel. The one-room log structure took on added importance a year later when it also became a school. The teacher was provided first by the Freedmen’s Bureau and later by Washington County; around 1900 a dedicated school for African American children was constructed nearby.
The cemetery, which was active since at least the 1880s, contains the graves of approximately 80 individuals. From the cemetery and local records a compelling portrait of the African American community emerges: men who were enslaved on farms that bore the brunt of the Battle of Antietam; an original trustee of the church who was born in slavery in Virginia and served in the U.S. Colored Infantry; a woman, already free before Emancipation, who donated a Bible to Tolson’s Chapel.
With the chapel looking proud once again, the Friends of Tolson’s Chapel sought grant funding from the newly formed African American Heritage Preservation Program for investigation and restoration of the cemetery and grave markers. The grant covered the costs of a preservation needs assessment by the Chicora Foundation, an archeology and cemetery preservation firm based in South Carolina. The study included the use of ground-penetrating radar to map possible unmarked graves. The grant also funded the restoration of each individual grave marker, which entailed re-setting markers, piecing broken stones together, patching spalls and cracks, and gently cleaning the stones, which in some cases revealed previously unnoticed details. The restoration of the markers, as well as the chapel’s cornerstone, was undertaken by conservator TaMara Conde of Historic Gravestone Services in Massachusetts. All of those loving labors reassert Tolson’s Chapel’s place in the history of this small western Maryland town.
The story of the Laboring Sons Memorial Ground in Frederick stands in sharp relief to the history of Tolson’s Chapel. Over 160 years ago, the Beneficial Society of Laboring Sons of Frederick, an African American fraternal organization, established a small cemetery on Chapel Alley between Fifth and Sixth Streets on the eastern side of the city. Originally, the Society provided for burials for both free and enslaved blacks who worked as carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers, barbers, and waiters in Frederick and the surrounding area. From 1851 to 1949, this cemetery became the final resting place for over 1,500 individuals.
By 1949 the Society no longer had the means or the manpower to continue the upkeep and operation of the cemetery, so the remaining members deeded the property to the City. That year, city workers recorded approximately 150 grave stones, then converted the cemetery into Chapel Alley Park, which for many years was a whites-only playground.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, descendants of those interred in the Laboring Sons cemetery brought attention to the site. The City’s 1949 list of grave stones soon came to light. Mayor Jim Grimes supported a preliminary archeological study of the site, and in 2003 the park was rededicated as a memorial, including an imposing granite marker bearing the names of those known to be buried there.
In 2010, Frederick Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation Roelkey Myers, whose involvement with the project stretched back a decade, applied for and received an African American Heritage Preservation Program grant to complete the park. Sidewalks were improved; lighting was installed; new benches were added. But the most significant improvement is that wayside interpretive panels have been installed to tell the entire 160-year story of the Beneficial Society of Laboring Sons and the cemetery they founded.
Stop sometime at Tolson’s Chapel and reflect upon the hands that built it: the hands of slaves newly freed, aided by the powers of faith and sheer determination. Linger at the Laboring Sons Memorial Ground and consider the love of community that sustained the cemetery over long generations and, after an absence of decades, ultimately reclaimed it. Although small, these sites tell a story as large as any.
Anne Raines is the administrator of Capital Grant and Loan Programs at the Maryland Historical Trust, including the African American Heritage Preservation Program (AAHPP). The AAHPP provides grant funds to encourage the identification and preservation of buildings, sites, and communities of historical and cultural importance to the African American experience in Maryland. Administered as a joint partnership of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture (MCAAHC) and the Maryland Historical Trust, the Program offers assistance to non-profit organizations, local jurisdictions, business entities and private citizens in their sponsorship of successful acquisition, construction, or improvement of African American heritage properties. For more information about the program, please contact Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410.514.7634.
Sources & Links
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