A Place of Their Own
Gwen Reese grew up in Sugarland, a community formed by free blacks after the Civil War. Now she’s devoted to preserving the heritage of her hometown.
On Oct. 6, 1871, three former slaves—William Taylor, John Diggs and Patrick Hebron Jr.—bought a small piece of land for $25 and founded the community of Sugarland, just south of Poolesville in the northwest corner of Montgomery County. That plot eventually contained a church, a school and a graveyard, and, 148 years later, I am walking through the cemetery with Gwen Hebron Reese, Patrick Hebron’s great-granddaughter.
She estimates that the area contains about 300 graves, and while most remain unidentified, she points out the tombstones of many relatives—her only child, a son who died of a brain tumor at 25, her husband, her grandparents and her great-grandfather on her mother’s side, Philip Johnson, who was born into slavery in 1847 and died at age 90. His name is crudely etched into a small stone marker, and the “s” in Johnson is written backwards. “It’s comforting—that’s the word—to know that they’re all right, that they’re at peace,” she tells me. “It feels so peaceful out here.”
Reese was born in Sugarland, one of about a dozen communities in this part of the county that were formed by free blacks after the Civil War. The 1860 census lists 5,421 slaves among Montgomery County’s 18,322 residents, and after they were freed in 1864, buying land and building homes was a powerful impulse. “The most important thing to them was to have a place that was considered their own,” Reese says. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates put it this way in the Washington City Paper in 1997: “Sugarland belonged to its people, something that black sharecroppers and tenant farmers throughout the country could not claim.”
Now 77, Reese worked most of her life in child care centers around the county. She moved to Gaithersburg in 1985, but Sugarland kept pulling her back, and today she is devoted to preserving the heritage of her hometown and the history of her ancestors. She recalls visiting here in the early ’90s, when the graveyard was overgrown and the current church building, which dates to 1893, was virtually abandoned. Jobs and schools had lured the young people away, and a community that once numbered 30 black families was almost gone. “It was heart-wrenching to see because we grew up in this church,” she recalls. “I felt so badly about the whole thing.”
What really drew her in were the stories of the people who had worshipped in that church and were now buried behind it. As she recalls: “I started wondering: Who were the families? What were they like? How did they manage to do what they did? I didn’t know what I was doing, but I tried to find out everything I could to reconnect with my family’s ancestors, and I feel like they approved.”
Reese enlisted two of her many cousins to help rebuild the church, and she had to sell off her family’s land—to another cousin—to finance the project. A retired army major, also a relative, agreed to maintain the cemetery. Inside the old sanctuary Reese keeps a collection of records and artifacts, from her grandmother’s butter churn and a box full of rusting tools to a file of death certificates and a church register from 1882. “I tell people, ‘If you’re cleaning out your attic and don’t want to throw something away, call me,’ ” she says with a laugh.