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Take a tour of black history in your own backyard

January 14, 2011|By TIFFANY ARNOLD | tiffanya@herald-mail.com
  • Start at A for a tour of black history sites in Washington County.
Map by Chad Trovinger


In a region ripe with historic ties, families can honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by taking a Washington County stay-cation.

It's easy to seek traces of black history across the river to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where John Brown led his infamous raid and where W.E.B. DuBois held the Niagara Movement, a precursor to the NAACP. But there's still plenty physical evidence of some of the most significant moments in black history right here in Washington County — like the place where a "Fugitive Blacksmith" escaped to become one of the 19th-century's most prominent black leaders or the chapel where black residents of a small Washington County community went to school.

So, gas up the car and see what's in your own backyard.

Our driving tour begins in Hagerstown's historically black neighborhood, along Jonathan Street. The first stop is at Asbury United Methodist Church (a), 155 Jonathan St. Founded in the early 19th century, Asbury's congregation is one of the oldest of the black churches in Hagerstown. Throughout black history, church and religion have served as incubators for social movements, such as abolitionist movements and civil rights.

Continue down Jonathan, past West Bethel Street, about mid-block to where Harmon Hotel (b) once stood. Look for a marker along the east side of Jonathan, between West Bethel and West Church streets. Harmon Hotel was owned by a black Hagerstown businessman, Walter Harmon. During the segregation era, Harmon Hotel was the only place visiting African-Americans could stay in Hagerstown, and it is where pro-baseball player Willie Mays stayed when he made his professional baseball debut at Municipal Stadium in 1950.

Continue down Jonathan for a few blocks until you've reached the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Jonathan Street. The grassy area is the Medal of Honor Triangle (c) and was installed in honor of Cpl. William Othello Wilson, a Hagerstown man who enlisted in one of the fighting units known as the Buffalo Soldiers and received the Medal of Honor. The Buffalo Soldiers battled American Indians in the West during the late 1800s.

This is where the road forks. Veer west to continue on Pennsylvania Avenue and follow the road onto North Prospect Street. From Prospect, turn left onto West North Avenue. On the south side of North Avenue, you'll see the "old" and "new" North Street School (d and e), where black students attended school during the segregation era. Today, the old and new North Street School buildings house Memorial Recreation Center (109 W. North Ave.) and the Martin Luther King Center (131 W. North Ave.).

From here, we will leave the Jonathan Street neighborhood and will head south of Hagerstown. Take North Avenue to Potomac Street and turn right. Continue on Potomac for several miles, exiting the city. Potomac will become Sharpsburg Pike and you should have traveled about six miles total — if you've passed Lappans Road, you've gone too far. Rockland Estate (f), 9030 Sharpsburg Pike, should be to the west. The original structure to this private residence was built by Col. Frisby Tilghman in the 1800s, according to records from the Maryland Historical Trust's inventory of historic properties. But this location also has ties to James W.C. Pennington, whom historians regard as one of the most distinguished black leaders of the 19th century, according to the U.S. Department of Interior. Pennington's 1849 narrative "The Fugitive Blacksmith" recounts his escape from Rockland as a slave. He would go on to become a minister and a prominent abolitionist.

Because this is private property, you will simply have to drive by from Sharpsburg Pike.

We're nearing the end of the driving tour. The final stretch is a 12-minute drive to Tolson's Chapel (g), 111 E. High St., in Sharpsburg. To reach the site, continue on Sharpsburg Pike for about eight miles, until you've reached East High Street and turn right. According to the U.S. Department of Interior, Tolson's Chapel was a church and a Freedman's Bureau school for the black residents of Sharpsburg after the Civil War. The chapel was built in 1866, two years after Maryland abolished slavery.

The chapel is maintained by a nonprofit group and recently underwent major renovations.

Weekend tours can be arranged by contacting Edie Wallace, PO Box 162, Sharpsburg MD 21782.

We have reached the conclusion of our tour in Sharpsburg, the site of the Battle of Antietam. Fought Sept. 17, 1862, the Civil War battle still carries the sad legacy as the bloodiest day of battle in American history. According to historians at Antietam National Battlefield, the battle gave President Abraham Lincoln the opportunity he had been waiting on to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a move toward equality.

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