Unearthing Sugarland’s story
One day 26 years ago, Gaithersburg resident Gwen Hebron Reese visited the Maryland town where she was born in 1941 — at least what was left of it.
Reese walked around the grounds of the shuttered church that had been the heart of Sugarland, established in 1871 by formerly enslaved people.
“The church had been closed, and it was just sitting there. The door was nailed shut, and the cemetery was being neglected,” said Reese, now 79.
“I thought about all my ancestors and how hard they worked to build this place,” Reese said. “I felt that I needed to do something to correct the situation.
“I started thinking about who they were. That culminated with curiosity, and that filled me with purpose.”
Founded by freed slaves
Located just south of Poolesville, Sugarland, likely named for the area’s sugar maples, was one of hundreds of Black towns established by freed slaves after the Civil War.
Several other Black towns, including Jerusalem, Jonesville and Martinsburg, were established north of Poolesville. But Reese’s aunt used to joke that “the men all flocked to Sugarland because they thought the women were as sweet as sugar.”
Once a thriving town with its own general store, school and post office, Sugarland was eventually abandoned, starting in the 1960s, by all but three of the 70 families who lived there.
Today, only St. Paul Community Church, a cemetery and a few houses remain. New mansions have supplanted Sugarland’s farms.
Determined not to let her birthplace fade from memory, Reese got to work — as it turned out, her life’s work — documenting her ancestors and the town they built. In 1995, she established the nonprofit Sugarland Ethno-History Project, which is headquartered in the 1894 St. Paul Community Church, open once again.
Last fall, after decades of research, Reese, her cousin Suzanne Johnson, and local writer Jeff Sypeck published a book, I Have Started for Canaan: The Story of the African American Town of Sugarland, thanks to a grant from Heritage Montgomery, another nonprofit.
“The ancestors lived it, and we wrote about it,” said Johnson, 71, who grew up in Prince George’s County but spent summers with her grandparents in Sugarland.
As vice president of the Sugarland Ethno-History Project, Johnson, a retired kindergarten teacher, has spent years working to “keep their memories alive,” Johnson said. “They worked too hard for us to forget them.”
Elders were teachers
Sugarland was founded by Johnson’s great grandfather, Philip Johnson, and two other newly freed African Americans, who purchased 1.3 acres from a white farmer and former slaveowner.
More families joined them and, at its peak in the late 19th century, Sugarland encompassed 200 acres of farmland, all owned by Black families.
Reese, who grew up in Sugarland, remembers its hardworking, family-oriented ethos. “We lived in our own little world, and it was wonderful,” Reese said. “There was a unity there.”
The elders of Sugarland treated every child like their own, Reese recalled, teaching youngsters how to do chores, for instance.
“They took the time to explain things to you, [to] show you what it is they’re doing and how they’re doing it.”
Children helped pick green beans, collards, kale, peaches and apples, she remembered. “We loved that because we could eat as much as we picked.”
Families would cook on Saturdays and share their meals at a potluck gathering after church on Sundays. Suzanne Johnson’s grandmother was known for her rolls and caramel cake.
The power of two
When Reese began researching her ancestors in 1995, she reached out to family, friends and former neighbors for information, artifacts, anything that could uncover the past.
“As I got more curious, I started talking to people. I recorded a few conversations, and one thing led to another,” Reese said. “Doors opened that I never thought would open.”
In 1996, Howard University students pitched in, recording interviews with Sugarland elders who shared stories about harsh overseers on Maryland plantations and deadly Civil War skirmishes.
Reese and Johnson teamed up 15 years ago when Johnson heard that her cousin was looking for photographs. Johnson had 100 vintage photographs, which she and Reese digitally scanned, saving them from destruction.
Several photos they collected now hang on the walls of a walk-in log cabin in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“I didn’t realize how historic Sugarland was until I started working with [Reese],” Johnson said. “I said, ‘I’d be glad to help because it’s my family and my history.’”
Putting stories on paper
A few years ago, Reese and Johnson realized they had enough material to publish a book. So, they found local writer Jeff Sypeck, who collaborated with the two women on the project, “taking it the last mile,” he said.
One of the most valuable sources of information was the church ledger, said Sypeck, who transcribed the most moving parts of the handwritten ledger for the book.
Reese and Johnson told him, “You’ll get chills” reading the entries — about disputes, sermons, people’s lives, etc. — and he did.
“I was stunned at every turn by how personal it was, and how many great stories they have to tell. They don’t just have names [in the ledger]; they have personalities and stories,” Sypeck said.
Sypeck was impressed with the amount of historic materials the two managed to preserve — more than 1,000 artifacts so far, including Bibles, school textbooks, furniture and more.
Every time he met with Reese and Johnson to discuss the book, Sypeck would ask questions about a certain family or detail, not fully expecting answers.
“But then they would turn up with a primary source for me. I just couldn’t believe it. After a while they would see my [surprised] face, and they would just laugh,” Sypeck said.
“After two years I have not seen all of the Sugarland collection — or even the bottom of the Sugarland collection.”
Last month, Reese, Johnson and Sypeck participated in the Montgomery County History Conference (which was virtual this year), speaking on Jan. 30 about the new book.
Now Reese and Johnson would like to establish a small museum to display artifacts and photos. Another goal is to build a small pavilion beside the church so families can picnic there, as they did in the past.
Reese remains in awe of her ancestors’ accomplishments — growing up in slavery yet building a beloved town from scratch.
“How did they manage to do what they did? To me, they were miracle workers.”
To order a copy of I Have Started for Canaan, please visit the online store of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance at: http://www.mocoalliance.org/buy-mca-gear.html.
For more information about Sugarland, visit sugarlandproject.org.