Diocese of Maryland’s Trail of Souls uncovers hidden history of churches’ ties to slavery

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 24, 2017
St. John's slave gallery

A balcony once used as the “slave gallery” is still a feature of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingsville, Maryland, as detailed on the Trail of Souls website.

[Episcopal News Service] Slavery is a thread stitched indelibly throughout the early history of the Episcopal Church in Maryland, where congregations to varying degrees enabled, benefited from or fought against the enslavement of Africans until slavery was outlawed by the state in 1864.

In the capital, Annapolis, St. Margaret’s owned a plantation in the mid-18th century where up to 100 enslaved laborers worked, and slaves likely built most of the congregation’s early structures.

Over on the west end of the state, Emmanuel Church in Cumberland is well known today for once being a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape north to freedom.

Nearly two dozen congregations across Maryland have researched and recorded a multitude of stories like these as part of a racial reconciliation project called Trail of Souls that is now in its third year. In addition to an annual pilgrimage to some of the sites, the Diocese of Maryland project’s focal point is a website offering a digital tour through the history of the 23 churches and their relationships to the institution of slavery.

It isn’t always a comfortable topic for Episcopalians.

“Not everyone likes to deal with the history of slavery,” said Reba Bullock, who leads the diocese’s Research and Pilgrimage Working Group. The group works with congregations to uncover such historical details, and it now is recruiting more churches to join the effort.

“Sometimes there is a little reluctance, but once they get on board they get excited because they find out things about the history of the church that they didn’t know,” Bullock said.

In one congregation, Bullock said, a local professor volunteered to do the research and discovered that slaves once attended Sunday worship services in a balcony apart from the white members of the congregation, and some slaves had been buried in the church’s graveyard.

Emmanuel Church tunnel

This tunnel under Emmanuel Church in Cumberland was said to have been used to hide slaves escaping north to freedom as part of the Underground Railroad. Photo: Emmanuel Church.

The Trail of Souls website also includes information on Emmanuel Church, which likely became a stop on the Underground Railroad after the arrival of the Rev. David Hillhouse Buel, who was active in the effort to free slaves. The congregation may not even have been aware at the time that the church was being used by the Underground Railroad, according to its Trail of Souls page.

Middleham and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lusby on Chesapeake Bay notes in its Trail of Souls history that many priests owned slaves before the Civil War. And at St. Margaret’s in Annapolis, the congregation took the additional step of dedicating five historical markers at the church, acknowledging the range of ways the church took advantage of slaves but also ministered to them.

Michael Winn was part of a team that already had been researching the history of St. Margaret’s when the diocese called on congregations to join the Trail of Souls. Some of what the St. Margaret’s team found was shocking, such as records showing the vestry in the early 1800s considered buying and selling slaves to support the church financially. (The church never acted on the proposal.)

“What we’ve kind of done is open the door to understanding that what happened in the past is not the past that we want,” Winn said, but it serves as a challenge, to re-examine and reaffirm our beliefs in the context of that history.

The Diocese of Maryland has been on the leading edge of the Episcopal Church’s dialogue on racial reconciliation. It formed an anti-racism committee and reparation task force in the early 2000s, and in 2010, Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton dissolved those bodies to refocus the diocese’s efforts by forming a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the Rev. Angela Shepherd, who initially chaired that commission.

Race has become a regular topic in recent decades at the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention. Shepherd, the Diocese of Maryland’s canon for mission, said the diocese has been active in those efforts because of Sutton’s leadership and that of his predecessors.

More than 600 people have completed the diocese’s anti-racism workshop, Shepherd said, and the discussion on issues of race has continued through film screenings, interactive theater and adult forums.

The launch in 2014 of the Trail of Souls website and its inaugural pilgrimage was timed for the 150th anniversary of Maryland outlawing slavery, and the project took its cue from a 2006 resolution from General Convention that called on all dioceses to research and document the church’s complicity with slavery and history of segregation and discrimination.

“The research has led to local interest. It has gone beyond a historian creating a document that’s posted,” Shepherd said. She described a conversation she had with a white parishioner who said he knew his church had been built by slaves but didn’t fully appreciate the significance until the congregation identified those slaves by name and read them out loud during a service.

It is such moments of awakening that the diocese hopes to foster through the Trail of Souls, a project that Shepherd said could be replicated in dioceses around the country.

“I would advise people not be afraid,” she said. “I think people are afraid of discovering the truth of the past, but I think the call to reconciliation is a call to be reconciled to our past.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

Comments (17)

  1. Vicki Gray says:

    An excellent article addressing long-silent truths.

    When we lived in Annapolis, we attended All Hallows in Birdsville. Among the graves in the historic graveyard of the “Brick Church” was, I believe, that of Kunta Kinte’s owner.

    I’m so glad my old friends in Maryland are not only addressing, but redressing such truths.

    1. Tony Oberdorfer says:

      For the information of Vicki Gray and her concern for “long-silent truths”: Kunta Kinte seems to have been a fictitious person whose main function was to enrich Alex Haley in the writing of his novel “Roots” much of which was based on material he had stolen from another writer.

      1. Charles D. Bush, MDiv, BCC says:

        Thank you for posting that comment Tony. I did not know that and just spent some time reading up on the inaccuracies about Kunta Kinte and Alex Haley’s research methods. I have a First Edition copy of Roots and remember watching the miniseries as a child (but on VHS, likely years after it premiered – I would only have been four in 1977). It is helpful to learn more about what I took for granted as fact. Thanks again for your comment.

      2. Tony Oberdorfer says:

        My dear Ms L.: I’m well aware that there were plenty of Simon Legrees who made life miserable for many but by no means all slaves in our country. But I’d rather smell the “blood, sweat, and tears” being shed in 2017 by millions of simple folks in Africa who continue to live slave-like existences at the hands of disgusting dictators who have been allowed to plunder their own country’s wealth. Rather than continually moping about alleged sins of American history, it would be much more beneficial to do what we could to rid the African continent of corrupt, cruel and incredibly greedy dictators who have caused so much misery.

        1. The Rev'd. Marcus Halley says:

          The alleged sins?
          Tony O., as a descendant of African slaves whose family can trace its lineage back to the very plantation in South Carolina where my maternal ancestors where HELD AS SLAVES AGAINST THEIR WILL and as one whose Great-Great-Grandmother was raped by her master which is how my family achieved its lighter skin color, I would say this – there is nothing “alleged” about America’s sin of holding, buying, and selling people. If Alex Haley isn’t your flavor, read any number of slave narratives or Olaudah Equiano’s journey through Middle Passage. Even if Kunte Kinte is fictional, the environment described by Haley existed. Period. That is fact. I know we’re living in a time of “alternative facts,” but this has been written down and proven by the brave women and men who endured such human brutality. And don’t parse slavery as if it was “good” for some and not for other. IT WAS SLAVERY. THE OWNING OF HUMAN BEINGS WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT. HUMAN BEINGS WERE PACKED IN THE HULLS OF BOATS FOR A THREE MONTHS JOURNEY ACROSS THE ATLANTIC OCEAN. SOME WHERE THROWN OVERBOARD WHEN THE SHIP WAS TOO HEAVY. MANY DIED BECAUSE OF THE HORRIFIC SANITATION ENVIRONMENT. IT TORE FAMILIES APART. WOMEN WE RAPED IN ORDER TO BREED MORE SLAVES. CHILDREN WERE PUT OUT IN FIELDS TO WORK AT 3 YEARS OLD. I can’t believe we are trying to nuance SLAVERY in 2017!
          This type of conversation is why we can’t actually move on, because so many refuse to believe that not only did slavery exist, not only did it involve the rape, torture, and mutilation of human beings, but that this very same legacy continues to enrich many white communities through passing down of wealth generation at the expense of black people.
          And since you want to bring the “simple folks” of Africa into this conversation, let us NOT forget the European colonialism destabilized the continent for centuries, carted off its natural and human resources, and only granted these countries independence in the 1960s. That’s 50 – 60 years. The United States of America was fighting a Civil War “four-score-and-seven” after its independence. So before you regurgitate the western narrative that Africa is inherently corrupt, realize that Western imperialism and colonialism did that the same way it destabilized the Middle East to this very day. If anyone is “corrupt” and “greedy,” its Western Countries like the U.S.A. who gallivant all over the world, take what doesn’t belong to them, and leave destructing and instability in their wake. Let’s also be clear that many places in Africa function well, even if they have to endure the poverty left behind by Europeans. Western Media won’t tell you you that because they want you to believe this dominant narrative of the inherent inferiority of Africa-descended people.
          To bring this back to the actual, real-life reason I clicked on this article (not to engage with a slavery-apologist in the year of Our Lord 2017), I am happy to see churches doing this necessary work. We have to engage in truth telling, even inconvenient truth. Jesus says in the Gospels that “the truth will make us free.” In my opinion, part of the reason why we haven’t exorcised the demon of racism completely from our national life is because we haven’t wanted to get our hands dirty in our history. That is a must.

        2. bob wadkins says:

          The Rev’d Marcus Halley describes slavery as the”owning of people without their consent”. What do we call the condition of owning people WITH their consent? Isn’t that slavery as well? Consent is irrelevant. The key concept is ownership.I believe the deep rage and frustration expressed by Halley and others of his ilk comes from the refusal to face the fact that Africans brought here as slaves DID consent to be slaves. Except for infrequent and isolated incidents there was not much resistance by those Africans or their descendants. In all of known history no group who has accepted bondage as their lot in life has been held in high esteem. You may charge me with blaming the Africans for their condition as slaves. To that charge I plead guilty.
          The only way we are going to make “progress” in race relations is for these self- righteous downtrodden folks to recognize their ancestors’ complicity and complacency in what has caused the present condition and for the descendants of the “oppressors” to stop apologizing and trying to appease those who are making hay out of being victims such as Graves, Halley and the like.

  2. Nancy Mott says:

    In light of slavery’s legacy in today’s shocking racism, shouldn’t our focus be not just on reconciliation but repentance?

  3. Anne McCorkle Garrett says:

    Photo credit for St. John’s Kingsville: Joseph F. Garrett

  4. Doug Desper says:

    Apparently, we will continue to revisit the past over and over again to repeatedly lament what we did not participate in and apologize to those who were not alive to be affected. As lamentable as life was 150 years ago it is now a fact that after untold shed blood, and trillions in treasury we have created vast opportunity for anyone living in our country today. Having worked with people in social services for years it really does come down to one thing. People need to make hard personal choices to better themselves in our times. Like Booker T. Washington (who grew up as a slave), it might mean cutting ties and going across miles to work at what is new and viable.

    Opportunity has been fought for and won and is largely available for anyone who wants to move past the legacy of 150 years ago. For us to continue to languish in what was as though it is hopeless quicksand is to say to Booker T. Washington and countless other former slaves that they didn’t understand how to put a “period” on the story of slavery. Their dramatic and changed lives closed the chapter. Their example 150 years ago is the course for anyone. Now, add the vast wealth of opportunities that have developed since Washington walked across the state of Virginia to start over. A person’s chance of success is very high, but there are always choices informed by values and free will that need to be made.

    Booker T. Washington warned against people of his time who continued living in the past and languishing over what used to be. In his 1911 book “My Larger Education” he described them as “problem profiteers”:

    “Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs – partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays.” (p. 118).

    If the words and the life of one abused as a slave matter, they are available in his book “Up From Slavery”.

  5. Dianne Aid says:

    Thank you Diocese of Maryland for this important work. We cannot move ahead with out knowing from where we have come.

    Slavery is not a thing of the past because it is part of the foundation of the reality we live in.

  6. Daniel Ries says:

    I am a member of Old Donation Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach. Our history began in 1621 when Adam Thoroughgood settled the Lynnhaven area and formed the Lynnhaven Parish. I am interested in researching our Parish’s interface with slavery, the slave trade and the anti-slavery movement. It would be helpful to know sources for this type of information and where I can find the historical documentation.

  7. Pjcabbiness says:

    Why don’t we focus our attention on moving forward as a united, integrated nation of free, just and thoughtful people pursuing peace and prosperity rather than continually revisiting an unjust and cruel institution that was abolished long ago? None of us that are alive today were either a slave or a slaveholder.

  8. Steven Catanich says:

    Slavery in this country still exists today, but illegally. It varies from people who are held and made to work as servants or find if if the threats made against them will come true to various forms of sexual alavery of adults and children. Greater effort by all people in the U.S. to wipe this scourge from our culture would be a good way to honor the memories of those who were slaves in the past.

  9. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    Sounds like the Reverend Halley is a good example of Booker T. Washington’s “problem profiteers.” That someone capable of writing such hysterical nonsense can become an Episcopal priest says a lot about why the Episcopal church is in such a sad state of decline.

  10. Yvonne S Finne says:

    Recognizing the immense wrongs and the pain caused, I believe we as a country must begin teaching our children TRUTH. Real truth. When that we have a federal congressional misunderstanding of human truths the only real place to start is with the children. A congressman stated (read about 3 years ago) that rape is something women make up to get their way in a relationship. For me, that level of denial is endemic in a great level concerning not just rape but all of the ugly aspects of life, homelessness, abuse, mental illness, slavery, lack of regard for each other as fellow humans. It can only happen with TRUTH.

  11. Pjcabbiness says:

    Right on Tony Oberdorfer!

  12. Carol Denison says:

    Marcus Halley, you are so correct! America now is saying they want to make America great again, excuse me but America was never great to say the least, they bought made Black people slaves, and hated when they were set free so to speak, but not because after they came up with a law that said if you didn’t have a job it was illegal, and throw the men in jail, ok another form of slavery free labor again. Then there was the Lynch laws, and segregation. Lets go back when they were slaves, they were systematically raped, sodomized, forced the young men to have sex with their mothers, sisters, and Fathers to do the same, or get tortured, can you imagine that they all suffered from Stockholm syndrome, PTSD, and every other mental Illness there is for almost 400 years and no psycologic help ever? Blacks aren’t as bad as White America has portrayed us to be to the whole world, they have proved themselves to be the worst Terrorist in the history of the world

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