An Epiphany: Why is African American History so Important?

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:

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 ( 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.

Declaration of Support

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.”

Edie Wallace, ZSun-nee Matema, Bridgett Jones Smith, Renee Emanuel, Elyssa Doub, Bill Maharay, Denise Troxell, Paula Reed, Mark Brugh, Christopher Stapleton

Friends of Tolson’s Chapel Creates Agency Fund at Community Foundation

HAGERSTOWN, Maryland, February 28, 2020—Friends of Tolson’s Chapel created an agency fund recently at the Community Foundation of Washington County MD to provide unrestricted financial support for preservation and interpretation of the historic African American Tolson’s Chapel & School in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

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

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, or call (301) 745-5210.

Slave Resistance at Antietam Iron Works

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.

Drawing of the ironworks and disabled wagons.

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.

 Drawing of the ironworks.

Peaceful Resolution

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.


Later Years

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.”

Recent Photo of the iron works.

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.


Emilie Amt, D.Phil., is a professor of history at Hood College in Frederick, MD. She blogs about African-American, local, and medieval history at The Amt-iquary Blog at


Open House and Program Schedule 2019

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 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


First Blog Post!

by Edie Wallace

I believe it was 2002 when I first became aware of Tolson’s Chapel.  It was only six years after the death of Virginia Cook, the last member of the chapel congregation who, sadly, I never knew.  I remember my first visit to the chapel, when we opened the front door and saw the Bible still open on the lectern.  The hymn page numbers from the last service were still listed on the hymn board and hymnals were still laid out on nearly every pew.  It took my breath away and goosebumps formed on my arms as I became aware of the spiritual energy still present in the old log building.  I still get that feeling every time I open the chapel door.

Viewer is facing the chapel, which is painted red.

A view of Tolson’s Chapel in 2001.

I remain eternally thankful to the United Methodist Baltimore-Washington Conference for having the foresight to seek out a preservation-minded new owner for the chapel.  And I am equally thankful to the Save Historic Antietam Foundation for taking ownership while the Friends of Tolson’s Chapel (FOTC) navigated the four-year 501(c)(3) formation process.  Fast-forward to 2018, sixteen years since that day we opened the chapel door in 2002.  The FOTC continues to grow and remains strong in our commitment to the preservation and interpretation of the historic building and its people who we have come to know and love.

Former Director Stanton stands at the podium in the chapel.

Former National Park Service Director Bob Stanton speaking at the Chapel’s rededication in 2012.

I want to use this first blog to look back on our many achievements over those sixteen years.  In all, we have received and successfully administered three Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) capital grants and two MHT African American Heritage Preservation Fund capital grants totaling over $130,000 to restore the chapel building and its adjoining cemetery.  We also received grants from the Preservation Maryland Heritage Fund and the Mary K. Bowman Fund (through the Community Foundation of Washington County) to install a beautiful informational wayside exhibit outside the chapel.  Grants from the National Park Service (through the Catoctin Center for Regional Studies) and the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau helped us to establish our internet presence with a comprehensive website and a professionally designed four-panel brochure.  Grants from the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area supported our 2012 Dignity of Freedom Symposium held at the Antietam National Battlefield and in 2017, helped FOTC to begin development of an educational program at Tolson’s Chapel for visiting school and youth groups.  FOTC was most recently awarded a grant from the Mary K. Bowman Fund for costumes and supplies to move forward with our planned experiential educational program.

In 2017, FOTC was recognized for our efforts to preserve Tolson’s Chapel by the Washington County Commissioners with the John Frye Historic Preservation Award.  We were additionally honored by Preservation Maryland with the 2017 Stewardship Award.  When it rains, it pours!

A View of Tolson's Chapel in 2017, after ther restoration.

A view of Tolson’s Chapel in 2017, after the restoration.

We are sincerely grateful for the support we have received from the National Park Service, manifested in various forms – from former NPS Director Robert Stanton as keynote speaker at the Tolson’s Chapel Re-Dedication in 2012, to Superintendent Tyrone Brandyburg (Harpers Ferry National Historical Park) at our 2017 Rally Day event.  Perhaps most importantly, were it not for Dr. Dean Herrin’s intrepid research and the contributions of his interns at the Catoctin Center for Regional Studies, Tolson’s Chapel might still be a forgotten shack on the back street of Sharpsburg!  Antietam National Battlefield staff, under the guidance of Superintendents John Howard and Susan Trail, have been steady supporters of the FOTC mission, sharing their time and equipment and sending visitors our way to tell “the rest of the story” following the battles of the Civil War.  In fact, the post-emancipation/Reconstruction story at Tolson’s Chapel is so important that in 2017 National Capital Region staff earmarked funds to pursue a National Historic Landmark designation for Tolson’s Chapel (still in process).

These past sixteen years have been exciting, exhausting, enlightening, and educational for me and for the FOTC board.  And while they might deny it, I know this to be true – without the steady support and participation of the FOTC board members, none of the many things we have done could have come to fruition.  Most important to us are the many friends we have made along the way.  Without our friends and donors we could not continue our mission.  Thank you all for sharing our vision and supporting our mission over these past sixteen years!  And here’s to many, many more!

Please look to this blog for periodic articles from invited contributors covering a variety of relevant subjects!