Gwen Hebron Reese was born into the Sugarland community in 1941, in a house built by her great-grandfather, a founder of the black agrarian community in what is now part of Poolesville. She remembers how Sugarland felt like an extended family where everyone worked together.
“In the early days the families all got together when they were doing the canning and everything for the winter,” Reese said. Each brought jars and produce and took away an equal share. The women canned while the men and children tended to pots over a fire. It was a community established by freed slaves, and St. Paul Community Church was its centerpiece.
St. Paul Church was built as the Sugarland Forest Methodist Episcopal Church in 1893 on land the community purchased for $25 from a former slave owner, sealed with a handshake, Reese said. It now sits at the elbow of Sugarland Road as a museum.
It’s one of five historic black churches highlighted in the Community Cornerstones documentary produced by Heritage Montgomery being shown at Germantown Library at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Following the hour-long film, Reese will sit on a discussion panel, alongside former Heritage Montgomery Director Peggy Erickson, and Barbara Grunbaum. Grunbaum and Reese are both interviewed in the film. The showing is in honor of Juneteenth, which celebrates emancipation in Texas on June 19, 1865.
Erickson produced the documentary, which shows the churches as cornerstones of black communities in Montgomery County since the Civil War. It follows the history of blacks establishing freed communities, their struggles through the civil rights movement and their work toward better education for their children. Erickson has also shown the film at other libraries and senior residences in the county.
“It’s not about religion,” Erickson said. “It’s about survival and strength and commitment to community.”
Erickson embarked on the project after making an Emmy-winning film with Heritage Montgomery about the Civil War titled “Life in a War Zone: Montgomery County during the Civil War.”
“In doing that we profiled all these little churches... there were over 40 of them scattered around the county,” she explained. Moved by the stories she heard surrounding the churches, Erickson wanted to make a second film in which the churches serve as a gateway to the families and the history of blacks in the area.
The other churches featured in the movie are: the Sharp Street United Methodist Church in Olney; Pleasant View Historical Site, previously Pleasant View Methodist Episcopal Church, in Gaithersburg; Emory Grove United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg; and Jerusalem-Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church in Rockville.
In interviews members of these communities talk about the changes they lived through and their early lives, when the churches were the center of activity.
“It transcends just our story, it’s the story of integration in the county,” Erickson said.