Tolson’s Chapel and School became a National Historic Landmark this last week amongst so many other achieved milestones, long awaiting recognition. The building stands today as a beacon and touchstone of the rich past of African American history that can inspire all Americans to pursue those deep traditions of unity in family, community, faith, and education. This humble building also represents American unity, built from the ashes of the deadly and divisive American Civil War. The lesson we bring to life from the Tolson community is its “union with a purpose*” that guides us to fulfill our founding principles to form a “more perfect union” of earth dwellers and promote “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”
—*Amanda Gorman, Youth Poet Laureate, 2021 Presidential Inauguration
For over one hundred and fifty years the humble landmark of Tolson’s stands with a history more important than any war, won or lost. It stands for the diverse and aspiring communities in American history that produced the brilliance of imagination so long oppressed and deprived of expression and opportunity. We were treated to the product of that legacy of African American history in Ms. Gorman’s Inaugural Poem.
“That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.”
—*Amanda Gorman, Youth Poet Laureate, 2021 Presidential Inauguration
Imagine the many souls of Tolson’s history if they could have lived long enough to witness this pivotal time, besides the thought of “why did it take so long?”
Imagine what Tolson’s Civil War veteran, Wilson Middleton, would have thought to see a black man become the Secretary of Defense, the highest-ranking military officer under the commander-in-chief?
Imagine the many African American women of Tolson’s and what they would have thought to see another strong woman of color win the Vice Presidency of the United States.
Imagine what a shy young student in Tolson’s American Union School would have thought about somebody like her becoming the first Youth Poet Laureate of the United States. Like Amanda Gorman, overcoming shyness, prejudice, and a speech impediment to inspire a nation about unity.
Imagine the possibilities of the American Reconstruction of the 1860’s realizing what the American Revolution was not able to realize a century before: our founding principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.
As a National Historic Landmark, Tolson’s Chapel and School becomes a gathering place for our whole community, inclusive of all walks of life to celebrate our common humanity. This landmark now becomes a community learning center for the nation to inspire the next generation to become what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called our “beloved community.” By revisiting the past and learning from history, we can reimagine our present and create a new future together. A future better described by Ms. Gorman.
“And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.”
With this lens of social justice, we can now see that “We the people” should mean “all the people.” American government, companies and organizations should “look like America,” diverse in its unity as well as diverse in its origins.
What do you think?
Let’s start a conversation about revisiting history to reimagine the present and our future.
Christopher Stapleton, Chair
Experiential Learning Committee
Tolson’s Chapel and School
Amanda Gorman, Inaugural Poem 2021: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/20/amanda-gorman-poem-biden-inauguration-transcript
Join us for our virtual Christmas by Candlelight celebration on Saturday, December 12th at 4:30 pm. Video will be broadcast on Facebook Live: https://www.facebook.com/tolsons.chapel. Visit our Facebook page or watch this video to learn more.
By Christopher Stapleton, FOTC Education Committee Chair
When my daughter, Zoe, was young and I was working for Universal Studios, our little family used to go to a little Methodist church in Ocoee, Florida. It was such a beautiful little town (since then it has been suburbanized). It was like the little town I grew up in, Middletown Maryland. Middletown is just over South Mountain from Tolson’s Chapel. After my tenure at Universal, I moved out to rural Florida to buy a house and raise my family in the country, like my family raised me. There I founded the Geneva Village Rural Heritage Center to bring that community together through informal education and provide a place for my Daughter to love the small town countryside like I did.
Decades later when visiting the Winter Springs Heritage Center (the town next to Ocoee), I learned about the Ocoee election day massacre, it was the first election that both male and female African Americans could legally vote in 1920. The act was legal, but lethal. A whole black neighborhood was wiped out
because they tried to vote. This history was kept quiet for nearly a century: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/history-center-ocoee-exhibit-dives-into-election-day-1920-massacre-and-how-it-relates-today/ar-BB1a1C4m
As I researched more about African American history in our StoryTrove stories, the more depressed I got. I read an historical fiction a few years ago based upon this Ocoee incident and was appalled. It was like so many of the massacres of African American communities that were formerly referenced as “race riots.” I thought back to my own hometown and wondered why I never saw a black population growing up (except for going to Orioles games in Baltimore). This year I rented office space in my hometown at the Wren’s Nest creative cooperative there. They told me about the whole black neighborhood that used to be right behind the Co-op. There was also a little church and school there, much like Tolson’s Chapel. Why did I never know that about that growing up?
In all my trips driving through the Southeast US, I witness all this wonderful countryside and small towns and am awe inspired by the beauty. I realize many of these used to be Sundown Towns where blacks were not to be seen after sundown. They also mostly all had Confederate statues in the center of town. So much African American history is in this countryside, but how safe do they feel visiting their own history? In encouraging the black community in Sanford Florida to visit my Geneva Rural Heritage Center, they shared their discomfort visiting, even though there was an African American community in Geneva, it was seen as a Sundowner Town to them. This is even though Geneva had a whole section of their museum devoted to the black community’s history and featured the first black (and beloved) Volunteer Fire Chief in the county.
I am realizing how important the Tolson’s Chapel and School story is to my understanding of American history (https://tolsonschapel.org). It was one of hundreds of freedmen’s churches and schools, but this is one of the few that we can still visit in its near original condition. It actually represents the hundreds of beloved black communities in the rural south that formed to support each other through seemingly insurmountable obstacles. How can we bring this history to life where much of the landmarks have disappeared and the stories lost?
Imagine creating a virtual Tolson’s Chapel and School for Middletown and all the other small towns, so residents there can see how important this history is. We can show that the Tolson’s story has significance beyond its own community and is relevant for the nation. How can we inspire all communities to visit the countryside to explore the rich rural history of African Americans that built the US? How can we make everybody welcome and be moved to learn about this part of our own heritage and be inspired, even transformed?
James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” How can we face our own history, the good and bad, to feel united in our larger beloved community? How can we revisit history to reimagine the future?
Tolson’s Chapel and School is a small place, but it has a huge story. I am glad to be part of a group using virtual technology to help share these stories across the US to help transform this society for the better. We need to face and change our heritage.
As stewards of Tolson’s Chapel, a building that embodies the history of the African American experience through the century following the Civil War, we, the Board of Directors of the Friends of Tolson’s Chapel feel compelled to express our support for open dialogue and reform in American race relations. We stand with the peaceful protesters who ask for honest acknowledgement of America’s failure to live up to the principles of freedom and justice for its African American citizens, who ask for meaningful reforms in this country’s deeply flawed justice system. We condemn acts of racism, violence, and vandalism from every sector of society.
Since Africans first arrived on the shores of the American continent, they have suffered and died at the hands of oppressive and often violent white authority. Some believed that the outcome of the American Civil War might solve the problem of racial injustice, but the experience of African American citizens through Reconstruction and segregation – including the men, women, and children who peopled Tolson’s Chapel through the years – was the opposite. Throughout the last century and a half, life for African Americans has been a daily struggle for acknowledgement of their humanity from their white neighbors, teachers, employers, politicians, and the very people sworn to protect them, the police. The injustice must stop.
African American citizens deserve better. Their progeny deserve better. No citizen of this great country should have to live in a constant state of hypervigilance simply because of the color of their skin. It is time for us to shape a new era in American history and to live up to our Declaration that “all men are created equal.”
Tolson’s Chapel is a small Methodist church built in 1866 by the Sharpsburg African American community. From 1868-1869, the chapel also served as a Freedmen’s Bureau School and then as the Sharpsburg Colored School until 1899. The chapel continued into the twentieth century, but closed in 1998 after the last member of the congregation passed away. In 2003, Friends of Tolson’s Chapel began restoration of the building and its cemetery, becoming a nonprofit in 2006. Today, Friends of Tolson’s Chapel preserves and interprets the history of the chapel and its people within the national context of reconstruction and segregation in American history.
“We are a small, all-volunteer organization with a big purpose,” said Edie Wallace, current president of Friends of Tolson’s Chapel. “This opportunity to enlarge our circle of friends and strengthen our fundraising capabilities through the Community Foundation of Washington County is an important step for the future of Tolson’s Chapel.”
Donations may be made to Friends of Tolson’s Chapel Fund at the Community Foundation by sending a check to 37 S. Potomac Street, Hagerstown, MD 21740 or by credit card on the Community Foundation’s website at www.cfwcmd.org.
About Community Foundation of Washington County MD, Inc.
Community Foundation of Washington County MD, Inc. has a five-year annualized investment return that makes it one of the top performing community foundations in the country. The Foundation has over $45 million in assets and has distributed more than $22 million in grants and scholarships since 1997. Donors can support any of its 350 funds or create a charitable fund of their own. To learn how to create a fund at the Community Foundation, please visit www.cfwcmd.org, or call (301) 745-5210.
Please join us for Rally Day 2019! If you can’t attend, please consider sending us a donation through the PayPal button or by check to the Friends of Tolson’s Chapel, P.O. Box 162, Sharpsburg, MD 21782. Thank you!
by Emilie Amt
Slave resistance has a long and honored history in our country. Leaders like Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, who planned armed uprisings, are famous figures in black history. Resistance took other forms, too, from verbal confrontation to work slowdowns to sabotage. The historical record shows that all of these forms of resistance happened in Washington County, Maryland. The most dramatic example was a slave uprising—or something like an uprising—at the Antietam Iron Works near Sharpsburg, in about 1836.
Several dozen enslaved men labored at the iron works, many of them married to free women of color. John Brien, the proprietor, prided himself on what he considered his good treatment of the enslaved workforce. But we get another perspective from the Rev. Thomas Henry, an A.M.E. preacher who ran a mission at the forge. He wrote that the white workers resented the blacks, and only Brien himself held the whites’ hostility in check. Henry seems to have been an eyewitness to the violent clash that took place in or around 1836.
Violence at the Works
On the fateful day, Brien was away from the works, and his white agent was in charge. Left to their own devices, the white workers attempted to tie up and whip the enslaved workers. The black men, facing this aggression, were determined not to let their white co-workers beat them. In the Rev. Henry’s words, “This caused a young [i.e., minor] insurrection…. [A] colored man that they called Stuttering Pete … caught one of the white men and threw him across the mill race. [Pete] then told me that his men could not be taken—and well he might say this, for a more powerful set of men I have never seen.”
The black men’s dramatic resistance led to escalation by the whites. In Henry’s words, “The agent then went up to Sharpsburg to bring down the militia, and when they arrived the boys [i.e., the enslaved workers] had fled to the hills and mountains, and could not be seen.” This retreat by the enslaved workers allowed time for tempers to cool.
According to Henry, the black workers “stayed away from the forge and watched for the return of Mr. [Brien], their master, and when he returned he said to me, ‘Thomas, here comes my boys from the mountains and hills, all coming to me like wild cattle.’ He told the agent that no man had authority to strike any of his hands, and if they have done anything that conflicts with the law, [he would] settle that [himself]. He told me that he called his men together and settled with them as he thought best.”
When we compare this episode with other slave uprisings, both the white provocation and the quick resort to the nearby militia are typical. What made this “insurrection” unusual was its peaceful resolution. The Antietam slaves trusted John Brien to protect them from other whites, and the outcome of the event proved them right, this time. The “insurrection” was more in the nature of a labor action. These enslaved men acted spontaneously to protect themselves from a sudden assault by whites. Unlike most slave uprisings, the goal of this one was to preserve the status quo. This fact, along with the return of their powerful white protector, was also the key to its success.
Sadly, though, John Brien turned out to be a typical enslaver in the end, and the enslaved workers’ faith in him was misplaced. In 1848, facing bankruptcy, Brien and his creditors decided to sell the iron workers. They resisted this too, asking him for their freedom instead, but Brien was indignant: “… I have always treated them most kindly, [and] this is indeed gross ingratitude… It would be a [serious] loss to me if they leave this place for Pennsylvania.”
Maybe some of them did get away to Pennsylvania. But a man named Peter was sold; was he the powerful Stuttering Pete who had thrown a coworker across the millstream? Twenty-two other men, eight women, and eighteen children were also sold when the iron works went under. Even when they were on “good” terms with the people they legally owned, enslavers thought of slavery as a business proposition first and foremost, and they thought of enslaved people as valuable property. John Brien, who prided himself on his good treatment of the “boys” at the Antietam iron works, was no exception.
Sources and Additional Reading
- From Slavery to Salvation: The Autobiography of the Rev. Thomas W. Henry of the A.M.E. Church. Ed. Jean Libby, Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1994.
- Jean Libby. “African Ironmaking Culture among African American Ironworkers in Western Maryland, 1760-1850.” Unpublished MA Thesis. San Francisco State University, 1991.
- Michael D. Thompson. The Iron Industry in Western Maryland. Privately published, 1976.
- Elizabeth Yourtee Anderson. Catoctin Furnace: Portrait of an Iron-Making Village. Ed. Elizabeth Anderson Comer. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013.
- The Catoctin Furnace Historical Society website includes information about workers enslaved at the Catoctin Furnace.
Tolson’s Chapel will be open the first Saturday of every month, April-October,
from 10:00am to 4:00pm for tours and special programs. We will also be open
for tours during local special events.
April 27 – 2:30pm, Zsun-nee Miller-Matema storytelling; 3:00pm, African
American Journey Tour stop (contact email@example.com for bus tour tickets
($20) and information)
May 4 – 10:00am-4:00pm, Museum Ramble Open House; 2:00pm, storytellers
Fanny Crawford, Stas’ Ziolkowski, and Renee Emanuel
May 25 – 2:00-4:00pm, Sharpsburg Memorial Day Parade Open House
June 1 – 10:00am-4:00pm, open for tours; 2:00pm, Tri-State Drum Circle
July 6 – 10:00am-4:00pm, Founder’s Day Open House; 1:00pm, Ebenezer AME
Church Choir concert of gospel and patriotic songs
August 3 – 10:00am-4:00pm, open for tours
August – 9:00am, WCAMHS meeting host site
September 7 – 10:00am-3:00pm, 4th Annual Rally Day Fundraiser; Pastor Walter
Jackson 1866 First Service reenactment; James Caldwell, pianist/singer; storytellers
Renee Emanuel and Mark Brugh; traditional fried chicken luncheon ($$)
September 14 – 10:00am-4:00pm, Antietam Battle Anniversary Open House
October 5 – 10:00am-4:00pm, open for tours
December 7 – 7:00pm, Christmas by Candlelight with Pastor Marbury, Ebenezer
AME Church of Hagerstown and TBA