ANTIETAM START OF COUNTY BLACK HISTORY TOUR
- From Hagerstown Herald-Mail today....
ANTIETAM START OF COUNTY'S BLACK HISTORY TOUR
SHARPSBURG - The bloodbath near Sharpsburg led to the Emancipation
Proclamation, and for many Civil War buffs, that's where the story of the Battle of
But don't try telling Dean Herrin that. He's taking it further by helping
restore a 139-year-old wooden church that served in the postwar years as both
worship center and school for the town's black residents, many of whom had been
slaves. "Here, almost on the very battlefield, you have the beginnings after
the war of a free African-American community," said Herrin, a National Park
Service historian and co-founder of the Catoctin Center for Regional Studies in
Frederick, Md. "It's just a wonderful symbol of what many people think the war
The building, Tolson's Chapel, is among 18 stops on a new guide to black
heritage sites in mostly rural Washington County. The county's tourism office,
like many of its counterparts across the mid-Atlantic and the South, sees black
history as a magnet for groups and individuals representing one of tourism's
fastest-growing market segments.
Black tourists spend about $30.5 billion annually, according to the Travel
Industry Association of America. It estimates black travel volume increased
about 4 percent from 2000 to 2002, compared to 2 percent for overall travel. The
tourism office in Washington County, with a black population of about 8
percent, decided to promote local sites after the state published a guide to
Maryland's black heritage attractions earlier this year. "I saw this and said, 'Wow,
there's hardly anything in here about Washington County,'" said Tom Riford,
president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The county is rich in such resources, starting with Antietam National
Battlefield. More than 23,000 men were reported killed, wounded or missing there on
Sept. 17, 1862, as Union and Confederate troops fought to a draw in the
bloodiest one-day clash of the war. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's failure to push
further north at that time gave President Abraham Lincoln the political
strength to issue, five days later, the Emancipation Proclamation, an order to free
slaves in the South at the start of the next year.
Besides the battlefield and Tolson's Chapel, the pamphlet features the
Doleman Black History Museum in Hagerstown and Fort Frederick State Park, once owned
by a free black farmer, Nathan Williams, who supplied food to both the Union
and the Confederate armies. Williams also helped slaves escape through
Maryland, which narrows to less than three miles near Hancock. "Because Washington
County was so narrow, escaping slaves often sought to cross through Maryland
here en route to freedom in the North," Riford said.
Maryland was a Union state, but it was a slave state, too, a fact reflected
in slave auction blocks in Hagerstown and Sharpsburg. The brochure also tells
the story of James W.C. Pennington, a slave held by Frisby Tilghman south of
Hagerstown who escaped in 1827 and became an internationally known minister,
teacher and abolitionist.
Construction of Tolson's Chapel began in 1866, two years after Maryland
abolished slavery. It was dedicated the following year as part of the Methodist
denomination. Starting in 1868, it also served for 31 years as a schoolhouse
under the auspices of the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency that established
public schools for the children of former slaves and free blacks.
Herrin said the timber building, now covered in red asbestos shingles, was
among 18 or 19 that the Freedmen's Bureau helped establish in Frederick and
Washington counties alone. Closed in 1995, it is one of just two such school
buildings that Herrin said still stand in Maryland; the other is in Harford County.
The Rev. Ralph Monroe, a retired United Methodist minister from Sharpsburg,
recalls attending church in Tolson's Chapel as a boy. He was never pastor
there, but Monroe, 80, has helped maintain the building and graveyard, which were
acquired by the Save Historic Antietam Foundation in 2002. "I think it's good
that the historical society wants to preserve it," Monroe said. "It is, in a
sense, the preservation of black history."
Posted by: Tom Shay
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