A DRIVING TOUR OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY
by Dr. Emilie Amt
Washington County is rich in African-American history. Here’s a suggested driving tour of African-American history sites that can be done in a morning or a day, depending on how long you spend at the various sites. Many of these sites have limited indoor visiting hours, but most (though not all) of the grounds are open during daylight hours. As you drive from south to north on this tour, you’ll move gradually from sites of slavery to sites of freedom. (Or of course you can do the tour in reverse order if that works better for you.) Places where you can eat meals are built in.
Starting point: Shepherdstown, WV. Grab breakfast or coffee in this college town before crossing the Potomac on route 34 E to Ferry Hill Plantation, a National Park Service site that overlooks the river, on your left. Ferry Hill was worked by a dozen or more slaves in the early nineteenth century. Although much of the older writing about this site emphasizes the supposed “good treatment” of the slaves, in fact the plantation owner was suspicious and violent towards them. His farm journal can be read online. The house at Ferry Hill is indefinitely closed to the public at present, but the plantation grounds are open. You can read the National Park service information about the house, but for information about the enslaved population go to this article by historian Robert Chidester.
Drive north on 34 E to the town of Sharpsburg, site of the 1862 battle of Antietam, which prompted the Emancipation Proclamation. You can visit the National Battlefield, but don’t miss Tolson’s Chapel. Going east on Main Street, turn right on South Mechanic Street, then turn left onto High Street, and Tolson’s will be on your left, across from Burkholder’s Bakery. This small church was built by newly freed African Americans in 1866; it also served as a Freedmen’s Bureau school. Meticulously restored and maintained, Tolson’s Chapel is open for special events and by appointment. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a personal tour. If you’re there when it’s closed, peek in the windows, read the informative historical marker, and explore the cemetery. Check out the Tolson’s Chapel website for a wealth of information.
Bonus site if you have time: Head south out of Sharpsburg (on Harpers Ferry Road) to the ruins of Antietam Iron Works. This early nineteenth-century industrial site was worked by a mix of free and slave labor, as was common in the local iron industry. In about 1836, the enslaved workers here protested against mistreatment by the owner’s agent and white co-workers. The slaves threw one of the white men across the millstream and then hid out in the nearby hills until a peaceful resolution was reached. The remaining ruins of the furnace are impressive. Read about the site at the C&O Canal Trust website.
If you’re ready for lunch, choices are extremely limited in Sharpsburg, so I suggest heading east (on route 34 E) to Boonsboro, where there are several casual restaurants.
From Boonsboro, head west via route Alt-40 W and 68 W to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church near Lappans Crossroads. Built in 1849, this church has its original slave balcony, records showing slave marriages and baptisms, and a modern (2018) stained glass window dedicated to the enslaved people who worshiped here. To see the interior of the church, inquire at the church office (closed Mondays) or make arrangements in advance. If you don’t go inside, you can still see the historic graves of African Americans born in slavery, in the cemetery, with a historical marker. The church’s website has full information, including the stories of enslaved individuals and families.
From St. Mark’s, head north on route 65, the Sharpsburg Pike, toward Hagerstown. Less than a mile north of Lappans, on the left, is Rockland Plantation. Not open to the public, this handsome stone house and striking red barn can be seen from the road. Many people were enslaved at Rockland, including a young man who escaped in 1827 and became the famous abolitionist James W.C. Pennington. He attended Yale University, became a Presbyterian minister, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg, and officiated at Frederick Douglass’s wedding. His pulpit Bible is on display at the Smithsonian, and his memoirs, including his descriptions of life at Rockland, can be read online.
Proceed north on 65 into Hagerstown, and make your way to Jonathan Street. This is the historic heart of Hagerstown’s African-American community. There’s ample parking, and informative historical markers commemorate lost buildings such as the old jail and Harmon’s Hotel. Other historic buildings are still standing in this neighborhood. Don’t miss Asbury United Methodist Church, 155 Jonathan Street. Founded in 1818, it was the first black congregation in Hagerstown and possibly the first in the county; the present building dates from 1879. One block north is Bethel Street, where you’ll find Ebenezer A.M.E. Church (at no. 26). Although the historic church building and cemetery are gone, this is the second-oldest black congregation in Hagerstown, founded in 1839. Look for the old cornerstone on the front of the parsonage. Zion Baptist Church, at the corner of Bethel and Jonathan Streets, was also founded in the nineteenth century. At 132 West Bethel Street is a building that served as an early twentieth-century community center, housing a black Civil War veterans group, a black fraternal lodge, a black cycing club, and other organizations.
Hagerstown has plenty of places to eat lunch or supper. The Visitors Center at 6 North Potomac Street is open Mon.-Fri. 9-5, Sat. 10-4, and Sundays May-Oct. 12-4. Staff can provide local travel info, and there’s a range of brochures and local souvenirs.
Finally, if you’re heading westward out of the county, be sure to stop at Fort Frederick State Park in Big Pool. This eighteenth-century fort was owned in the nineteenth century by a free black family, the Williamses, who farmed it for decades. There is information about the Williams family in the main barracks building, and an early African-American schoolhouse sits near the fort. Fort Frederick is open 8:00 a.m. to sunset, April to October, and 10:00 a.m. to sunset, November to March. Learn more about Fort Frederick at the Department of Natural Resources website.
Dr. Emilie Amt is a professor of history at Hood College in Frederick, MD. She writes The Amt-iquary Blog about African-American, local, and medieval history at emilieamt.com.