Public education demonstration at a restored Tolson's Chapel.

Testimony: Tolson’s Chapel Tells a Story of Struggle and Courage

03/28/2017
By Preservation Maryland

At the March hearing date of HB1513 that would establish a base-level of funding for historic preservation grants in Maryland, Preservation Maryland was joined by amazing colleagues from across the state, including Zunny Miller-Matema of Friends of Tolson’s Chapel. Watch or read her inspiring story and testimony here:

WATCH THE HEARING

Written Testimony of Zunny Miller-Matema

As a member of the Friends of Tolson’s Chapel, I am honored to be here today to represent them. We are a small non-profit association formed to preserve, restore, and interpret Tolson’s Chapel in Sharpsburg, MD, a part of Western Maryland and a historic cultural treasure.

As an example of a rural African American Church which served also as a Freedmen’s Bureau School and county Colored School, it has stories of courage and struggle to tell. Receiving additional grant monies would allow the interpretation of the brick, church pews, oil lamps and cast iron wood and coal stove to be told. The story of how the newly freed community revealed their lives through the Chapel building must be told.

We have preserved the structure that held the dreams and visions of a community just three minutes outside of the Antietam Battlefield and now desire to tell to an ever-widening audience the stories held within the walls and cemetery grounds through our website, educational activities, and hopefully, National Historic Landmark designation.

For instance, on an April morning in 1868, eighteen young African-American students filed into a church in Sharpsburg, Maryland, to begin lessons in the newly established American Union School. Their teacher, Ezra Johnson, was provided by the Freedmen’s Bureau and funded by the local African-American community. Twelve of the children had been enslaved only four years earlier, before Maryland abolished slavery in 1864. A Sharpsburg African American couple donated the land on which the church, Tolson’s Chapel, was built.

Public education demonstration at a restored Tolson’s Chapel.

If we are granted additional funding, the human stories behind these lives could be taken into the schools informing the children of Western Maryland an example of what heart, soul and determination can achieve. We envision joint tourist ventures connecting the Battle of Antietam with the triumph of those who built Tolson’s Chapel as well as creating an array of educational films, discussions and presentations.

If you want to know why and how this affects me personally, it is because my great-great grandfather who came out of slavery created schools for the African American community and with four other ordained Methodist ministers convened a conference that allowed African Americans the opportunity to determine their own leadership within the church.

These were freedmen who became leaders of their communities to educate, inform and inspire. Tolson’s Chapel is a part of that American history and it happened in Washington County, Maryland.

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Preservation Maryland works at the federal, state and local level to influence the policies, programs and funding mechanisms that make preservation possible. Advocacy remains one of the primary activities of the organization because of the dramatic scale of its impact. Rather than just saving one building, aggressive advocacy gives us an opportunity to save thousands of buildings.

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Preservation Maryland is Maryland’s first and largest organization dedicated to preserving the state’s historic buildings, neighborhoods, landscapes, and archaeological sites.

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