We’re honored to be collaborating with the Sugarland Ethno-History Project (SEHP), an organization working to preserve and share the legacy of a historic African American community established by formerly enslaved Maryland residents circa 1880. With the organization, we’ll be developing exhibit panels to educate the public on the history and preservation of Sugarland, which is currently part of the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve. We conducted a site visit in June, 2021 and are excited to share more about Sugarland.
At the end of the Civil War, the founders of Sugarland navigated the promise of newfound freedoms with faith and fortitude. They built a settlement that would become home to more than 40 families across 200 acres and contain a variety of cultural and civic institutions: a church, a post office, a schoolhouse, a general store, and a practice hall for the town’s band. 150 years after Sugarland’s first appearance in written records, the town and most of its structures are no longer—but a caring community and a rich history remain.
St. Paul Community Church
Pictured here is the last original standing structure of Sugarland: the St. Paul Community Church. It has stood as the center of Sugarland’s community for many decades, now housing 150 years of records and artifacts gathered and preserved by the SEHP Dorsey Archaeology Project team. It is also still used to host services, meetings, reunions, tours, and other public events, and sits adjacent to Sugarland’s historic cemetery.
This project is made possible with a grant from the SEHP and Maryland Humanities Council, as well as with support from Heritage Montgomery, Archaeological Society of MD Mid-Potomac Chapter, Montgomery College and the Ottery Group.
The Sugarland well
The black-and-white photo below shows resident Samuel Jackson drawing water from Sugarland’s community well, accompanied by an audience of five children: Mary Smith, Marjorie Lee, Sarah Lee, Tilghman Lee, Jr., and Idella Lee. It captures a snapshot of life at Sugarland in the 1930s and sits on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Specific as it is to the history of the former settlement, the photograph’s symbolism resonates with broader viewers and shifts depending on their perspectives. As the SEHP notes in its history of the community, I Have Started for Canaan, the image may symbolize all at once “pride in accomplishment, elders undertaking hard work as an example to the young, or a community drawing life and sustenance anew.”
Today, as seen in the color photo below, plant life has reclaimed the Sugarland community well. For many years, however, it served the community until private wells took its place.
The well sits adjacent to the home site of Sugarland residents Basil and Nancy Dorsey, who raised five children in a two-room, one-story home in the decades following the Civil War. The SEHP Dorsey Archaeology Project team is now conducting an archaeological testing project at the site of their former home to learn more about the Dorsey family’s history.
Additional archaeology at Sugarland
Pictured below, volunteers work on the SEHP Dorsey Archaeology Project to excavate and preserve artifacts from the home site of former Sugarland residents Basil and Nancy Dorsey. Four stones in each direction indicate boundaries of the small log house, which would have been built in the late 1800s.
Initial ephemera found at the site includes cut nails, glass, kaolin pipes, and a serving fork. These findings too are consistent with similar sites in the region. The Dorsey site contains very little evidence of floorboards or roofing materials. Archaeologists believe that, like many people without much disposable income, the Dorsey family reused building materials. We believe that the Dorsey children or other locals may have taken the raw material with them to build their houses, additions, or other buildings.
Since our visit in June, 2021, the SEHP Dorsey Archaeology Project team has found some remnants of the home’s floor, as well as some additional artifacts. We’ll look forward to sharing more findings as the excavations and exhibit panels progress. For now, we hope you enjoyed this introduction to Sugarland!