Historic chapel, school listed as a historic monument
The chapel built in 1866 is “probably the best example from a historian’s and an architectural historian’s perspective” of the black experience during Reconstruction, Wallace said.
The National Park Service recognized this significance and designated Tolson’s Chapel as a National Historic Landmark in January 2021. Amid a global pandemic, the honor was not given a ceremony at the time. But the Friends of Tolson’s Chapel are hosting a dedication and unveiling of a bronze plaque with the national designation at the church this month. The park service will participate in the program.
The chapel, in 2008, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its national and local significance, per the chapel’s application to become a National Historic Landmark. The old church and school are also listed as a contributing building to the Sharpsburg Historic District on the National Register.
The timing of the chapel’s nomination for a National Historic Landmark was fortuitous because the National Park Service, which oversees the National Monuments Program, was looking for buildings or sites representative of the black experience during reconstruction, Wallace said. .
The only other location in Washington County designated a National Historic Landmark is Fort Frederick, which received that honor in 1973, according to the Historic Landmarks website. A state park, the stone fort near Big Pool was built as part of the defense of the state’s borders during the French and Indian War.
The historic designation opens Tolson’s nonprofit to more grantmaking opportunities and has already led to more visitors for the historic chapel, Wallace said.
A Montessori high school class from Kensington, Md., visited the chapel last year and several younger homeschool classes visited. Wallace said the Montessori educator, looking for buildings representative of the black experience during reconstruction, discovered Tolson through a new website created by the National Park Service about the chapel.
The educational experience for students included a re-enactor who spoke about life in Sharpsburg for the black community and how they came together to build the chapel, she said.
The chapel is open to the public for free visits from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on the first Saturday of the month from April to October.
Edie Wallace, former president of the Friends of Tolson chapel, said the person who donated the flat-bellied stove recounted buying it from Virginia Cook and Frances Monroe, among the chapel’s last members, when the stove sat in front of the chapel selling it. Wallace said the stove appeared to date from around 1900 to 1920 and was used to provide heat.
In the summer the windows would have been open or maybe there was activity outside.
The chapel is named after its first pastor, John Tolson, a black man assigned to the Hagerstown circuit by the Washington Conference of the Methodist Church — his black conference, Wallace said. The congregation was established in 1865, a year after the state of Maryland abolished slavery.
The cornerstone of the chapel was laid in 1866 and in October of the following year the building was dedicated, according to a brochure from Tolson’s chapel.
Tolson was not the first church in the Sharpsburg community to serve the black community, but it was the first black-led church in the area, Wallace said.
“It gave them independence. A space where they were free to be themselves. That they weren’t being watched,” Wallace said.
In 1860, a year before the Civil War began, 1,435 free blacks lived in Washington County, according to the chapel’s application to become a National Historic Landmark. This population included free-born blacks and former slaves who were freed or purchased their freedom. Census data indicates, according to the application, that “most free blacks in the Sharpsburg area worked as domestic servants, cleaners, farmhands, or ‘labourers’.”
About 10 free blacks owned real estate. This included Samuel Craig, who along with his wife, Catherine, donated the land for the chapel to establish Sharpsburg Methodist Episcopal Church, according to Wallace and Church History. Tolson was reassigned to the circuit of churches in Winchester, Virginia, but the church in Sharpsburg was named in his honor after his death in 1870.
Wallace told him that the church’s association with the Freedmen’s Bureau is of national significance. Congress created the office in 1865 to guide the South from a slave society to a free labor society, according to the Chapel Register Application. The office’s tasks were to help liberated people establish schools.
The office assigned Ezra Johnson, a white man, to be the first teacher at Tolson’s Chapel “American Union School” in April 1868, according to the request and pamphlet. Later teachers would be black, including John J. Carter and James Simons. Simons’ father, David, was one of the chapel’s first trustees and became the school’s first teacher during its tenure as a county school, Wallace said.
According to a teacher’s monthly school report, posted on the nonprofit organization’s website, Tolson had 18 students in April 1868. Three of them were over the age of 16. The school included elementary students, Wallace said.
The Sharpsburg Color School operated in Tolson until 1899, when a frame school was built in the area, according to the chapel brochure.
The church operated until 1998, according to the chapel’s National Register website. This was two years after the death of Sharpsburg’s last church member, Virginia Cook.
As the Friends of Tolson’s Chapel worked to become a nonprofit, the Save Historic Antietam Foundation acquired the church in 2002, according to Wallace and the pamphlet. The Friends became a nonprofit in 2006 and took over ownership two years later, according to the brochure.
The church underwent extensive restoration in the 2000s. This included the removal of asphalt shingles which were likely added over the logs and vertical plank siding in the 1940s to give the chapel a brick appearance , Wallace said. Approximately 20% of the original logs have been replaced. Replica white pine siding was used to replace about 80% of the vertical planks and all new slats were installed, she said.
The chapel also received new cedar roof shingles and windows were restored using mostly original materials, according to the nonprofit’s website.
Wallce said there would be no more burials in the cemetery behind the chapel.
Ground-penetrating radar was used to determine there were potentially 12 unmarked graves behind the chapel, Wallace said.
The cemetery has 36 graves marked with death dates, according to a 2013 cemetery preservation assessment. Cook and the Simons are among those buried in the chapel cemetery. Others buried there include Wilson Middleton, a church administrator and member of the US Colored Infantry; Hilary Watson, who was enslaved at the Otto farm; and Jeremiah Summers, who was enslaved at Piper Farm. Both farms are part of the Antietam National Battlefield.
A few items from Tolson’s Chapel will be part of the revamped exhibit at Antietam National Battlefield when the visitor center, which is undergoing an approximately $7 million rehabilitation, is completed, Park Ranger Keith Snyder said. , head of resource education and battlefield visitor services. Snyder said he hopes the center will be ready to reopen this fall.
Park officials started from scratch to redesign the organization of the battlefield museum, Snyder said. A team of historians worked around five universal concepts: conflict, terror, survival, freedom and memory.
The chapel items will be in the freedom section because freedom is a complicated story, especially in Maryland, Snyder said.
While freedom is directly tied to the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln issued on January 1, 1863, slavery was abolished in Maryland on November 1, 1864, through a new constitution of State.
One obvious thing is that when slaves gained freedom in Maryland, at least in Sharpsburg, the first things they sought were religion and education, Snyder said.
“Tolson’s is the perfect example of both because it served as a church and a school,” Snyder said.
Items planned for the new Battlefield Museum exhibit include a book and inkwell — to represent the school — and a Bible, Snyder said.
The Bible belonged to Nancy Camel, whose last name has been spelled variously, including Campbell.
Camel, 40 in 1860, was “employed as a servant at the William Roulette farm,” according to the nonprofit chapel’s website. She had been enslaved by Peter Miller, a member of the Roulette family through marriage, and freed by Andrew Miller in June 1859. It seems that Camel immediately took a job at the Roulette house where she remained for the rest of her life. , says the website.
Camel was a member of both Tolson Chapel, to which she donated a large Bible, and Manor Church, a church in Dunker north of Sharpsburg in whose cemetery she was buried, says the website.