If the fall air and colorful trees inspire a leisurely ride through the county, how about going to church?
Not any church, but one of the historic African-American churches listed in a new booklet published in early September by Heritage Montgomery.
The idea for the booklet came in 2011 during the filming of the Heritage Montgomery Emmy award-winning Civil War video, “Life in a War Zone: Montgomery County During the Civil War 1861-1865.”
“We came across so many churches that were started right after the Civil War by freed slaves,” Peggy Erickson, executive director of Heritage Montgomery, said. “This story needs to be told rather quickly because the congregations are vanishing and the people are growing old; we need to get their stories out.”
“Community Cornerstones, a Selection of Historic African American Churches in Montgomery County, Maryland,” published by the Heritage Tourism Alliance of Montgomery County in Germantown, gives the history of 21 standing Montgomery churches, all historically African-American, most still in use, and three that are no longer standing. A photo, the address and a short history of each of the featured churches are included in the booklet along with a map of Montgomery County showing where to find each one. Contact information also is listed.
The churches grew out of the desire of freed slaves to establish places of worship in their communities.
St. Paul Community Church in Poolesville is down a narrow paved road at the intersection of Sugarland Road and Sugarland Lane.
“It started as Sugarland Forest Methodist Episcopal Church in 1871,” Gwen Reese, church trustee, said. “It doesn’t function as a church because of the low number of descendents in the community; it’s not enough to support a minister.”
Reese said that rather than let the church go to ruin, she and other descendents of the original community have started a mini-museum, filling the sanctuary of the small white building with artifacts, both religious and secular.
“We call it the Sugarland Ethno History Project,” she said.
Reese, who now lives in Gaithersburg, and her cousin Suzanne Johnson, of Landover, are related through a great grandfather who worked as a slave on a farm near White’s Ferry.
“Most of the land was purchased from the Quakers, who did not believe in slavery,” Reese said. “They purchased it at a reasonable rate with a gentleman’s agreement to pay off the land as they worked.”
Johnson recalled attending the church as a child, when she would spend summers in Sugarland at her grandfather’s home.
The original church burned down like many other wooden churches in the county, and was replaced with the one now standing in 1893.
“The only thing that’s changed is there were two pot-bellied stoves and there were red velvet drapes hanging behind the altar,” Johnson said.
The cemetery behind the church still is used. A former community member was buried there recently, resting with others dating back to the 1870s.
Erickson suggests visiting the cemeteries, as they play an important role in telling the community’s history.
“If you are going out to visit these churches, spend a little time in the cemeteries. The messages on the tombstones are just very endearing,” Erickson said. “Many are homemade, hand-painted on rocks, hand-painted on pieces of wood — they are very humble and heartfelt.”
The oldest African-American congregation in the county is Sharp Street Methodist Episcopal Church, now Sharp Street United Methodist Church, in Sandy Spring.
In 1822, Thomas and Sophia Brooke deeded the land for a cemetery and house of worship to the Sharp Street trustees.
The church still is in use. It is the third church for the congregation; the second was built to house a growing membership and the third after a fire destroyed the wooden structure.
Each of the 21 churches in the booklet has its own unique story to tell and role in history.
Although they have been getting calls about the churches and the booklet, Erickson said there is no way to track how many people are visiting the churches because of it.
“The word is out and it’s really been very well received,” she said.
The booklet is available online at HeritageMontgomery.org. Paper copies can be picked up at the group’s office, at 12515 Milestone Manor Lane in Germantown. Call 301-515-0753 for information.