Antietam start of county's black history tour

October 30, 2005|By DAVID DISHNEAU

SHARPSBURG - The bloodbath near Sharpsburg led to the Emancipation Proclamation, and for many Civil War buffs, that's where the story of the Battle of Antietam ends.

But don't try telling Dean Herrin that. He's taking it further by helping restore a 139-year-old wooden church that served in the postwar years as both worship center and school for the town's black residents, many of whom had been slaves.

"Here, almost on the very battlefield, you have the beginnings after the war of a free African-American community," said Herrin, a National Park Service historian and co-founder of the Catoctin Center for Regional Studies in Frederick, Md. "It's just a wonderful symbol of what many people think the war was about."

The building, Tolson's Chapel, is among 18 stops on a new guide to black heritage sites in mostly rural Washington County. The county's tourism office, like many of its counterparts across the mid-Atlantic and the South, sees black history as a magnet for groups and individuals representing one of tourism's fastest-growing market segments.


Black tourists spend about $30.5 billion annually, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. It estimates black travel volume increased about 4 percent from 2000 to 2002, compared to 2 percent for overall travel.

The tourism office in Washington County, with a black population of about 8 percent, decided to promote local sites after the state published a guide to Maryland's black heritage attractions earlier this year.

"I saw this and said, 'Wow, there's hardly anything in here about Washington County,'" said Tom Riford, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The county is rich in such resources, starting with Antietam National Battlefield. More than 23,000 men were reported killed, wounded or missing there on Sept. 17, 1862, as Union and Confederate troops fought to a draw in the bloodiest one-day clash of the war. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's failure to push further north at that time gave President Abraham Lincoln the political strength to issue, five days later, the Emancipation Proclamation, an order to free slaves in the South at the start of the next year.

Besides the battlefield and Tolson's Chapel, the pamphlet features the Doleman Black History Museum in Hagerstown and Fort Frederick State Park, once owned by a free black farmer, Nathan Williams, who supplied food to both the Union and the Confederate armies.

Williams also helped slaves escape through Maryland, which narrows to less than three miles near Hancock.

"Because Washington County was so narrow, escaping slaves often sought to cross through Maryland here en route to freedom in the North," Riford said.

Maryland was a Union state, but it was a slave state, too, a fact reflected in slave auction blocks in Hagerstown and Sharpsburg.

The brochure also tells the story of James W.C. Pennington, a slave held by Frisby Tilghman south of Hagerstown who escaped in 1827 and became an internationally known minister, teacher and abolitionist.

Construction of Tolson's Chapel began in 1866, two years after Maryland abolished slavery. It was dedicated the following year as part of the Methodist denomination. Starting in 1868, it also served for 31 years as a schoolhouse under the auspices of the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency that established public schools for the children of former slaves and free blacks.

Herrin said the timber building, now covered in red asbestos shingles, was among 18 or 19 that the Freedmen's Bureau helped establish in Frederick and Washington counties alone. Closed in 1995, it is one of just two such school buildings that Herrin said still stand in Maryland; the other is in Harford County.

The Rev. Ralph Monroe, a retired United Methodist minister from Sharpsburg, recalls attending church in Tolson's Chapel as a boy. He was never pastor there, but Monroe, 80, has helped maintain the building and graveyard, which were acquired by the Save Historic Antietam Foundation in 2002.

"I think it's good that the historical society wants to preserve it," Monroe said. "It is, in a sense, the preservation of black history."

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