A landmark effort

Group aims to preserve chapel

Group aims to preserve chapel

February 13, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

A deteriorating black history landmark likely will stand in Sharpsburg for generations to come due to the efforts of a local preservation group and a retired preacher with deep ties to an old church.

The Rev. Ralph Monroe remembers when Tolson's Chapel was the heart of Sharpsburg's once-strong black community.

The 137-year-old church on East High Street served as the town's first school for black children and the center for black worship and fellowship.

"This was a special place," said Monroe, 74, who has been caring for the church grounds and cemetery since retiring as a Methodist minister and returning to his hometown in 1993.


"I feel indebted. I have a great deal of sentiment because I was reared here," he said. "The church was about the only connection we had in town."

Up to 60 African-American parishioners filled the tiny Methodist church for worship services, Sunday school classes and Wednesday evening prayer meetings when Monroe attended the chapel as a youngster in the 1930s and '40s, he said.

He remembers the warmth of the pot-bellied stove in the winter, the Saturday nights in summer when townsfolk gathered at the chapel for food-filled festivals and the annual fall homecoming celebrations.

He was among many blacks who left Sharpsburg starting in the 1950s to work in other areas, he said. Within 30 years, the town's black population was too small to support more than the chapel's annual homecoming service.

And by 1993, Monroe's late mother, Frances, and cousin, Virginia Cook, were Tolson's Chapel's only active members, he said.

The local conference of the United Methodist Church closed the chapel in 1994, and donated the old building to the Save Historic Antietam Foundation (SHAF) in 2002.

The nonprofit group works to preserve and protect historic sites within the Antietam Valley that are related to the Battle of Antietam, the Maryland Campaign and other Civil War activity.

Tolson's Chapel represents an important part of Sharpsburg's heritage and the legacy of the Civil War, said historian Dean Herrin, coordinator of the National Park Service's Catoctin Center for Regional Studies at Frederick (Md.) Community College.

The church was built in 1866 on land donated by a black couple from Sharpsburg. Two years later, 18 black children - including 12 former slaves - filed in to the church to attend school for the first time, Herrin said.

Teacher Ezra Johnson christened the new Freedmen's Bureau school, "American Union," a reminder that the Civil War freed the slaves.

"For many people, the Civil War was about freedom and the right for African-Americans to live their lives like everybody else - to attend schools and worship in their own churches," Herrin said.

SHAF has secured $35,000 in grants from the Maryland Historical Trust, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Maryland and the National Park Service to pay for an historic structures report, educational video and emergency stabilization of the chapel's leaky roof and crumbling stone foundation, SHAF board member Denise Troxell said.

The structures report will give preservationists an idea about the total cost of the restoration work, which is slated to begin this spring, Troxell said.

SHAF formed a 13-member advisory board to guide the preservation project until a new nonprofit group is launched to oversee the effort, Herrin said.

The group will seek additional grants and donations to restore such original architectural features as the chapel's wooden pews and pulpit area, six-over-six windows, balcony, bell tower, liquid slate walls and board-and-batten siding, said architectural historian Paula Reed, a member of the chapel advisory board.

When possible, original materials will be retained, Reed said.

SHAF is seeking documents and photographs related to Tolson's Chapel to help with the preservation project, Troxell said.

Those wishing to provide information may call Troxell at 301-432-6856 or Herrin at 301-624-2773. Donations can be made payable to SHAF-Tolson's Chapel and mailed to P.O. Box 550, Sharpsburg, MD 21782.

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