Get local news delivered straight to your phone

The church on Sugarland Lane is small and modest, light-years away from some of the sprawling halls of worship that dot the District. There is no extravagant stained glass, and at most the pews can seat about a hundred. On this Sunday morning, only about 10 or 11 parishioners sit in the front row—all of them women and children. I find out later that almost everyone in the church is family. A friend and I are about a half-hour late for the service, so we sidle into seats in the back in hope of remaining anonymous while observing the proceedings.

I was not raised religious—my brother says that when he would bow his head to thank God for the food on our table, my father would tell him, “I put this food on the table. I put this roof over your head.” But the small elderly brown woman coming down the aisle could care less about my family and its agnosticism. “We’d be pleased if you’d join us closer to the front,” she says, smiling gently. We move forward, somewhat embarrassed, all 20 or so inviting eyes locked on us.

The elderly woman asks us if we have testimony to give. I’ve had a hard week and I could testify about the D I got on my Spanish quiz, the honey who laughed at my advances, or a recently arrived cutoff notice from Bell Atlantic. But I’m so embarrassed by my tardiness that I simply smile politely and shake my head no. My companion does the same.

The attendance at the church is so minuscule that when the pastor calls for the choir, all but a few of the members move to the front to sing. It would be a pitiful sight were it not for the faith the members obviously have in this church and its ability to channel a power greater than themselves.

Smaller hearts would take a look at the naked pews and break for a bigger church, or leave God altogether to this devout crew of believers. During its 126-year history, this old church has seen worse: fires, burglaries, even extended periods of dormancy. But the parishioners of St. Paul Community Church have always rebuilt, always returned. They’re not about to stop now.

Call-and-response is in full effect, and every statement the pastor makes is accented by some burly woman’s “Amen” or “Yes, Jesus.” The rendition of “Precious Lord” is robust if only because it has to be; if a black church can’t sing, well, then we’ve got problems. Pastor Brody’s sermon is equally powerful, as he spins the tale of Zachary’s faith in God’s prophecy. His whining tenor is melodic and majestic—in his voice box the sermon becomes a song.

Had I come here 70 years ago, perhaps I would have been a believer. Sugarland was a land of plenty, a community that black men and women had conjured up out of good dirt and sweat. In those days, the church was packed with grandmothers born again and children who’d been dragged in by their ear lobes. At the annual homecoming, the church wasn’t even able to hold everybody. Social events were held in a fine community hall that once stood next to the church. Those who passed away came to rest in the graveyard right behind the church.

St. Paul’s has become a silhouette of what once was. It is the centerpiece of a local jewel of black history tucked in snug near the Potomac at the western edge of Montgomery County. The church’s survival is assured because of its historical landmark status, but the dragon of modernity has its eyes on the community and made its intentions clear. No matter that the woods that now fill Sugarland were once fertile fields replete with crops. And no matter that Sugarland was once a thriving community of black folk in an age when the words “black” and “thriving” never showed up in the same sentence. Sugarland was and is a marvel, a bubble of unwritten history, but the beast is creeping over the hills, its hunger swelling. Sugarland’s end is just down the road.

Elaine Murray lives about a half-mile down a dirt lane from St. Paul’s. Her house sits back from the road and is enveloped by the woods that have reclaimed Sugarland. The house, like Murray, is almost physically rooted in Sugarland. For 59 years she’s lived here. Her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents all rest in the graveyard behind the church. Murray’s mother was a cook; her father worked the land just as his father had. From her childhood, she remembers a verdant plot that they squeezed for all it was worth. “My father hunted and fished,” says Murray. “We had a little farm and a garden. We bought seeds from the general store and would can fruit.”

The local school was closed by the time she and her brother came of age, so they were bused to Rockville. Murray smiles when she remembers the day she cut her leg and her brother came running up this same road with a wheelbarrow to ferry her home. Murray calls Sugarland “God’s Country,” and her parents believed the same. When the schoolhouse in Sugarland was shut down, Murray’s parents bought it. The slight, unassuming white building sits directly between Murray’s house and the church. It now stands dormant, the white paint flaking off its outside walls. Murray now owns the school jointly with her siblings. Its value is measurable in memory only: Her parents and their parents learned their first lessons inside its walls. She once wanted to have the place restored and turned into a museum. “I’ve been holding out for a while,” Murray says, staring at the living-room floor. “But now we’re probably going to sell it. It’s a great loss.”

Many years and many lives will disappear when the rest of Sugarland succumbs. In 1865, Sugarland Forest, a rural Maryland community about 15 miles northwest of the District line, belonged mostly to the Pleasants, a white Quaker family who worked the land. Part of it also belonged to Robert H.C. Alnutt, a local planter who owned slaves. Unlike in other parts of the country, where emancipated blacks were given meager strips of barren land, the freedmen of Montgomery County were able to secure fertile tracts. Throughout Montgomery County, independent communities of black farmers, communities with names like Big Woods, Clarksburg, and Jerusalem, sprang up.

The Pleasants parceled and sold some of their land to slaves. Patrick Hebron and Rezlin Lynch became modern Sugarland’s first residents when, in 1871, they bought four and 10 acres, respectively, from the Pleasants. Alnutt later sold three acres to William Taylor. The same year Hebron bought his land, he, Taylor, and John H. Diggs purchased one acre from George W. Dawson, a former slaveholder, and established St. Paul Methodist Episcopal Church on the same land where St. Paul Community Church now stands.

Other black families quickly purchased plots in the area and established small farms. Although Sugarland is now heavily wooded, old residents will tell you that in their youth you could see clear across the land from farm to farm. In those days, Sugarland boomed. It was a hubbub of rural activity, a community of self-sufficient black farmers who scorned working white folks’ land, instead cultivating their own tracts. There was a post office here, a general store, a pub; the schoolhouse was established in the late 1920s. There was also at least 180 acres of healthy farmland, almost all of it owned by black folks.

Residents made their livings working the land, and those farmers who prospered shipped their surplus down the C&O Canal and sold it in Washington. Women and children would pick fruit from the trees and can the bounty, making everything from applesauce to apple butter. Residents who owned boats would fish for herring and shad and cure it to tide them over. It was rumored that near the property of Phillip Johnson, one of the earliest residents, was an Indian burial ground. Residents say children would wander through the area snatching up arrowheads.

On second, third, and fourth Sundays in August, the community had what it called “Camp Meeting.” “I would go to Camp Meeting with my mother,” recalls Murray. “All the different churches would have tables selling cakes and things. It was a tradition for black folks, and we would get to see all of our school friends.”

Sugarland wasn’t Utopia. Families sometimes had to hire their labor out to more prosperous white farmers. Other residents had to take jobs as domestics to keep food on the table. But Sugarland belonged to its people, something that black sharecroppers and tenant farmers throughout the country could not claim. Sugarland was a Garveyite’s dream: an independent community of black people who only asked the surrounding white community to leave them be.

But time could not leave Sugarland be. The community hummed through the turn of the century, but in the late ’30s and early ’40s the young people of Sugarland started moving to the cities in search of better jobs and faster times. When the U.S. entered WWII, the booming job market drained Sugarland. “There was a tremendous Second World War migration from that community to the war plants,” says Russell Adams, a professor of African-American Studies at Howard University.

The change was gradual. Even residents who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s remember Sugarland as a vibrant community. But by 1980, the next generation was nowhere is sight, and those who were left, according to Adams, were “trying to get out as soon as possible.” Farming was no longer profitable enough, because the increasing value of the land begat higher taxes.

Sugarland has been left to fend more or less for itself. Much of the land lies comatose, with years of back taxes owed on it. The town is now a mix of younger whites and the elderly descendants of its founders. Of the 30 families that populated Sugarland at its height, only three remain.

Sugarland has limped along for a while, allowed to slowly tumble down into itself because the land has no sewage lines. But if sewage lines come to Sugarland, and they most certainly will, the land values will skyrocket and developers will waste no time gobbling up the “dead” land and buying out the old families. Some of the signs are already visible. To the west lies a polo club, and up the road a suburban housing development is creeping toward Sugarland. “The question will be, as the development gets closer, who is gonna cave in,” says Adams, “and who’s gonna cash in.”

The tragedy is not purely racial. There is probably no grand scheme concocted in a dark room by white developers. People need to work, and the economy has no room for independent farmers, white or black. Factor in the taxes, and you begin to understand why people have been migrating out of the community and leaving their land for dead. Still, the people moving into the developments almost certainly will not look like the people moving off the land. And a piece of history, a piece of black people’s identity, will die here.

Support City Paper!

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

As a child, Gwen Reese would follow her father, Robert Hebron, one of Sugarland’s most prosperous farmers, everywhere. Pigs, cattle, chickens, and even goats grazed on his sprawling homestead. He tilled the land with tractors, and when the work was done he’d take his boat out and spend the day fishing. Reese shadowed him so much that she earned the nickname “Nuisance.” “I was crazy about father,” she says, laughing. “Wherever he went I was right behind him. It got so bad that if I wasn’t behind him they would yell, ‘Come on, Nuse!’”

Reese, 55, loves the memory of Sugarland, a past she sees reflected as she makes her way through the current landscape. As a child, she would pick berries and fruit from the nearby trees. When it snowed and Sugarland was buried in white silence, she would climb to the top of Wadell’s Hill with her friends and slide down. She comes back here at least once a week.

Two years ago, St. Paul Community Church, the church that had held the community together for years, was in ruins. The paint was peeling off the sides, the doors were falling apart, and there was a gaping hole in the chimney that was exposing the venerable church to water damage. The church had also been closed for some time for reasons nobody talks about. Reese, along with a few others, took it upon herself to repair the church and reopen it for worship.

The graveyard wasn’t in great shape, either. Every Memorial Day, residents would come and clear it little by little. Finally, one of the residents decided to continue the upkeep year-round. As we walk the graveyard, Reese seems eerily at home. Perhaps it is the type of comfort one gets from family, breathing or not. Around us, some of the graves have marble headstones, but most are marked with chips of rock or slabs of concrete with names that were inscribed while the concrete was wet. And still others, the unlucky ones, are marked only by simple depressions in the ground. “All of these are graves,” Reese says, pointing at the ground. “Some of them, they’re marked with a stone, but nobody knows who they are.”

The original church burned down around 1930, and with it went the records of who was buried where. There’s no telling how many names have been lost to time. At the end of the field lies a grave that is in every way a symbol of Sugarland. A small ravine, about a quarter filled with water, runs next to the grave. “When we have the flash floods,” she says, pointing to the ravine, “this whole thing fills.” Little by little, the dirt around the grave is being worn away.

As we walk back up through the graveyard, I remember Reese mentioning a Coates family that once lived here. I ask her if she knows where any of them are buried. She points to her right, and we walk over to a plot of marked graves. Lloyd Coates, 1864-1933. “Who knows? You might have evolved outta Sugarland,” says Reese jokingly.

“Nah. My pops is from Philly,” I say, shaking my head. “We have a lot of family that moved up to Philly,” she replies. I give the grave a quick glance, shake my head again, and walk back to the church.

Sugarland Road is deceptively beautiful. Driving down it is like watching the shapely girl in your English class who always wears glasses, baggy clothing, and a head-wrap do a sudden striptease. At first all you see are trees, a few new houses, and a gigantic dairy farm. It’s the standard country vista, and to one who fashions himself a city slicker, it’s pretty banal. You might turn back out of sheer boredom. Then you hit steep, arching Wadell’s Hill and look down to see all of Sugarland undressing itself. The trees hug each other close like green lovers, and toward the church the earth is as orange as fire. When it rains, locals say you can mold the mud into clay.

I can’t help wishing that I had walked these roads when they connected a community that had wished itself into being. But if my eyes fail to see the past, I do find a breathing artifact named Phillip Samuel Johnson. Uncle Sammy, as he’s called out here, is a talker—funny, smart, and full of every one of his 77 years.

“I ain’t gon’ write a book or nothing,” he says, sitting on his couch with one elbow propped on his knee. “But I got a head full of acquired knowledge—just full of it.”

He sports a growling baritone and smooth black skin. In his younger years, Uncle Sammy was ashamed of his complexion. He would date only light-skinned ladies. Now, many years later, though married, he can’t help but smile and snicker when attractive dark women stroll past.

“These young boys coming up here, only thing they got is white girls on their minds. And we got the most beautiful black women you wanna see,” he says, smiling cagily at a Hershey-complected friend who has joined me for the interview. “I didn’t know they was that pretty when I was coming up,” he adds, nodding his head toward her.

Uncle Sammy has lived in Sugarland all his life. He went to the little schoolhouse just down Sugarland Road. As a child, he passed the days playing baseball and boxing over in Rockville. I look him up and down one time as he recollects his pugilistic past. “Still good. Seventy-seven years old and still good,” he says, raising his dukes for emphasis. He says he could have gone on to be a contender, but one day when he was in the service, some black folks told him all he was doing was “making amusement for white folks” and that he needed to get some books. “Quit it just like that,” he says.

Uncle Sammy’s grandfather was Phillip Johnson, Grandpa Phil to his progeny, one of the early arrivals at Sugarland. Grandpa Phil was a slave who, according to Uncle Sammy, jumped from a window when the Union troops came looking for slaves to work for the army. His militancy was forged during slavery. In an interview with the Work Projects Administration, Grandpa Phil said of his white overseer, “I promised him a good killin’ if I ever got big enough.” As far as folks know, he never followed through on the threat, but he did transfer his militancy to his children and grandchildren, filling their heads with stories about the evils of human bondage.

Grandpa Phil instilled in his kids a “do for yourself, not for the white man” ethic. According to Uncle Sammy, he owned land not only in Sugarland but in Georgetown as well, land he later sold at a hefty profit. Uncle Sammy is every bit of Grandpa Phil’s blood. He’s seen his share of adventure. He’s helped build a highway in Alaska and followed the D-Day invasion up through the Rhine.

When he came home, he took a piece of his father’s land and built the very house we’re sitting in. It’s been a busy life, filled mostly with work. Uncle Sammy has never been one for gambling, drinking, or nightclubs. To this day he claims he couldn’t play a game of cards if you paid him. He’s a pious man who believes in goodness and hard work. Once he tried to move to Philly but simply couldn’t take city life. “I didn’t know how to live in a city,” he says. “I just couldn’t stand it. They’d get up and play cards 3 o’clock in the morning. Come 3 o’clock in the morning I’m sleeping.”

Uncle Sammy is the oldest descendant still living here—the last of his kind, and he knows it. “The younger generation’s not gon’ worry ’bout holding on to no property. They gon’ hold on to some money,” he says laughing. “They ain’t gon’ worry ’bout bushes growing or none of that. I got two or three acres back there in woods, and if it’s not kept up the woods gon’ close in.”

Uncle Sammy’s children still live in Sugarland, but it is his grandchildren who worry him. They have jobs in the city and new lives. But none of it surprises or rankles Uncle Sammy. “You can’t die holding on to material,” he says. “If the land’s handed down from one generation to the other and each generation keeps developing it, well, that’s what I’d like to see. But I don’t think that’s what’s gonna happen.”

The interests of the young are necessarily different, he explains. “I’m not gon’ drown in my own tears. I can only do for these kids what they’ll allow me to do. You can’t control an adult who has to work for his own living. You say wouldn’t I like my black kids to keep this, to do this, do that. I’d like for them to be smart enough to do what they want to do and have what they need to have.”

“You know, there’s a song where somebody talk about trying to hold on when your faith is gone. And that’s what it is: If you don’t have the faith in the land and you just trying to hold on, it’s no prosperity in it,” he says without regret.

I probe deeper, determined to find a sense of loss he claims not to feel. “You keep asking me if I’m sad about it,” he responds. “No, not really. Because I’m old enough to know what I can and can’t do. It’s only two things you can do: You can live and get smarter or you can live and get dumber.”

I want Uncle Sammy to tell me about the pain of possibly losing his father’s land. I want him to tell me that it breaks his heart to see his grandkids not love the land the way he loves it. I want him to hold forth with agrarian purity about the indecency of progress. Uncle Sammy will have none of it. He’s a practical man who has no problem making peace with reality.

“I paid $2,500 in taxes last year,” he says grimly. “When it snowed, I paid $250 to have my drive cleared.” He lowers his eyes and stares right through my veneer of idealism. “You know if I gave you this house and told you to move on this land, you wouldn’t do it.” My eyes wander across his carpeted floor. “You know you wouldn’t,” he repeats.

St. Paul Community Church is enjoying a rare increase in attendance courtesy of the Johnson and Hebron family reunion. Rows of cars are packed onto the church lawn. Inside, a collage of black and brown faces is giving testimony. “I didn’t think I’d make it here this morning,” says one man. “My sister was having problems, and my car wasn’t running right. But if you take one step, then the Lord’ll take two, and he saw me here into this church this morning.” An older woman recalls earlier days when car troubles were not part of the picture. “I remember when my grandma used to bring me here in a horse and buggy.”

The service is inspired, flush with the spirit of reunion. Clarence Johnson belts out “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” reaching down into the pit of himself and blowing out something so lovely that the walls seem to buckle. Gayle Hebron, who attended this church as a child, now freestyles a short sermon based on the tune Johnson has finished ejecting: “Great is thy faithfulness. You can’t shake it, ’cause God is good. Practice whatever ya wanna practice, but ya gotta go through Jesus.”

The audience is with her, responding rhythmically and following her cadence, injecting “Yes Lawd”s into the two-second spots of silence she reserves for their approving response. The Fry Chapel Male Chorus is on it, too. With an electric guitar and a drummer, the group offers up a bit of gospel, inciting the audience to clap in time and a few spirited ladies to stand and dance in place. By the time the Rev. Brody steps into the pulpit, he’s pretty much got his work cut out for him. But this is his church, and he reaches back and unleashes a hellacious sermon, drawing all eyes and ears to his message of God’s love and forgiveness.

After the service, some of the family members wander down to the graveyard to commune with ancestors, some of them nameless but no less precious. Eventually, most change clothes and make their way to a nearby park where barbecue, hamburgers, and hot dogs await. At the park, I stare out at the panorama of black and brown faces. These are the children of Sugarland, some dolled up in fancy suits and dresses of another era, others looking all of today’s Chocolate City, their hair cornrowed and the girls in fitted T-shirts. Uncle Sammy is right. Time is walking right by Sugarland whether I like it or not.

Gwen Reese asks me to go for a ride, and as we make our way up the winding road, she points and waves at various family members in houses along the road. She’s got roots all through here, and family everywhere. We stop at a spot where a school she attended as a child used to be. It’s gone now, and in its place is an asphalt driveway. It’s clear that at heart she’s like me, a dreamer.

But she understands the loss of history that will probably occur. Reese has already seen helicopters flying overhead taking pictures of the land. She’s had people call about buying up plots. And she knows what’ll happen if sewage lines come to Sugarland. But although she knows that she may not ultimately prevail, Reese has had her share of victories. People have repeatedly sent money in to help restore the church. A year ago she was able to secure historical-landmark status, which should protect the church even if development comes to Sugarland. She got a new organ at a discount price and got a grant to put up a plaque in front of the church.

Because churches are tax-exempt, she doesn’t have to worry about not being able to pay taxes on the land. Reese also won a round against the polo players who wanted to expand the roads in Sugarland. She says she has tried to keep people from letting the taxes on the land accumulate by asking them to give land to the church before the tax man gets his hands on it. “A couple of responses were like, ‘I’m not giving my land away,’” says Reese. “I say, ‘Well, if it goes up for sale, you’re still not gonna have it.’”

Reese is determined to hold on to as much of

Sugarland’s legacy as possible. I ride away from the family reunion and survey the land with new eyes. It’s places like this (maybe this exact place) that my progenitors toiled to make a home for those who would come next. Many of their peers died sharecroppers or in urban squalor. But in Sugarland, if only for a few decades, we made our community and lived for ourselves.

My college friends say that when they graduate they want to go to Africa. They want to touch the pyramids their ancestors built, they want to see Goree Island, where their ancestors were turned into chattel. They want to go home, they say. But home is closer than they think. It is undeniably here in these rural outposts where, through centuries of toil, our grandparents—not distant ancestors—raised kids, fed families, and claimed their humanity. Men who work in glass buildings and sign large checks are preparing to bulldoze all this right out of history. When they finish, all that will remain may be the graves—some marked, some not—to remind us of all that was once sweet in Sugarland.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.