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Preserving black history

Group works to restore historic Tolson Chapel

Group works to restore historic Tolson Chapel

July 01, 2005|by ADAM BEHSUDI

SHARPSBURG

adamb@herald-mail.com

The last two members of the Tolson Chapel congregation closed the doors of the small, wooden building in Sharpsburg 10 years ago. When Edith Wallace reopened that door five years later, the chapel seemed frozen in time.

"We opened the door and the Bible was still open on the table," Wallace said.

The red-shingled building on East High Street closed in 1995 as a church. It wasn't until 2000 that Wallace discovered the building. Now, she and a group of people are trying to restore the structure that served as a United Methodist Church for Sharpsburg's black community since 1866.

Wallace said the chapel was built only two years after Maryland freed its slaves in 1864. She is nominating it as a site for the National Register of Historic Places.

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The chapel was built in 1866 by the black residents of Sharpsburg, many of them freed slaves, Wallace said. Named after its original minister, John Tolson, the chapel soon began serving a dual role. In 1868, the building was leased to the county for use as a school as part of the newly formed Freedmen's Bureau, a government agency designed to support the nation's free black population, Wallace said.

The school at the chapel closed in 1899 and moved to another building on the same street.

Ralph Monroe, a retired minister of the United Methodist Church, is on the board of trustees for the restoration of the chapel. His mother and father were lifelong members of the Methodist church and are buried in the small cemetery behind the building.

"Total membership at one time was 90 and it deteriorated to two," said Monroe, a Sharpsburg resident. He attributed the sharp decline to many people moving to Hagerstown to look for employment.

Although he was away from Sharpsburg for more than 40 years during his time in the ministry, he said his mother was one of the two last members when the church closed.

Now long vacant, with paint peeling from the walls and dust collecting on the small organ, Monroe, Wallace and the other members of the board are looking for ways to preserve the chapel. Currently, work is being done to stabilize the structure's foundations and prevent any further water damage.

David Gibney, owner of Historic Restoration Specialists, has rebuilt part of a corner foundation and reinforced a support beam under the floor.

Wallace said the work is only a beginning. The building was transferred from the Baltimore conference of the United Methodist Church to the Save Historic Antietam Foundation. With the building stabilized, she hopes a separate nonprofit organization can be established to take over the funding of the restoration.

"We're not even sure how we're going to use the building," said Wallace, but she added that it's most likely going to serve as a interpretive historical site. She's even thinking of putting a virtual tour of the building on the Internet.

Wallace said she is hopeful that she'll start receiving larger grants once the building is stabilized. Grants from the Maryland Historical Trust, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Maryland and the National Park Service have helped in the initial preservation of the chapel.

"This is the culmination of five years of hopes and dreams," said Wallace.

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