Only a few miles outside of Oxford, on a little spot of land, right on Oxford Road, is a modest one-room building that is the home of the John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church. There is no indoor plumbing; instead, there is the remnant of an outhouse behind the church. There is no place to park. The sprawling cemetery could use some TLC.
Unassertive it may be, but oh, the history! Step into the church, and you’ve stepped back in time. If you close your eyes, you could almost hear the murmurs of the congregation as they turn the pages to find the hymns whose numbers are still listed on the board near the pulpit. The organist begins to play as the pastor returns to his red velvet seat after delivering the sermon. This could be any church in any town, but for Oxford, this place is an important piece of African American history, and a lot of effort is being put into saving it.
The Talbot Spy recently met with the John Wesley Church Preservation board members Paula Van Valkenburgh, Jim Reed, Virginia Gibson, and with spokesman and Church elder, Wayman Pinder. We spoke about how far this program has come and how far it still has to go to make it accessible to the public so that others can benefit from the history and culture of this important landmark.
But to talk about how far it has come means that you need to know about the past.
This particular bit of history began in 1838 when plantation owner Ann O. Worrell, deeded one-eighth of an acre for $10.00, ‘on which a house or place of worship would be built.’ This became the place where many throughout the area would walk 2 to 5 miles to attend services. On Sundays, they would gather in the morning, sing and pray on their own and conduct Sunday school as they waited for the arrival of their ‘circuit rider’ minister, who was assigned and traveled to more than one congregation.
In 1846 an adjacent parcel was purchased to be made into a cemetery. By 1851 it had become an abolitionist and integrated church with 31 whites and 26 black members, which was highly unusual for the time and the place because Oxford back then had an African American community that was 50% freed and 50% enslaved. It was also the center of Union recruitment for the U.S. Colored Troops, where some signed on to serve as a way to attain freedom for themselves and their families.
“The thing that I keep going back to,” said Reed, “is the unique history of not only the grounds, but the people that that were members of this church, and how it was a mixed congregation. I didn’t see any of that in the history books when I was in school, and honestly, it’s something that should be taught.”
After the civil war, when blacks could own property, the black congregants purchased John Wesley from the whites for $150.00. In the 1940s, the cook shop, at the urging of church member Nellie Brooks Leatherberry, was built on the property, serving meals and refreshments to church members. The church and cook shop remained operative until the late 1970s when it fell into disrepair.
Jump forward to the early 2000s when a decision was made to save the church’s contribution to Oxford history. Thanks to donations from former members and families of former members, including congregants of the African American Waters United Church in Oxford, the rehabilitation began with the lifting and structural renovation of both the church and the cook shop. In 2015 the cook shop site (renamed as the Nellie Brooks Leatherberry African American Museum) became the first African American Museum in Talbot County. If this sounds like the perfect ending of a story for this historic church, then you’d be wrong. So much still needs to be done, says Van Valkenburgh.
It was a sweltering day when we met. The church doors were open to let in air as we sat in the renovated pews, drinking iced tea. In front of the pulpit is a granite rock with the words ‘M.E. Church 1875.’ It was found under the church when it was raised for the renovation.
To both Pinder and Gibson (who are brother and sister), the church is a place that holds happy memories. Their family had lived down the road, and they had been going there ever since they were children. Like siblings, they bantered back and forth teasing each other, remembering old times: being babysat in the loft choir while their parents prayed below, the Sunday cookouts in the cook shop, which had to be done early and thoughtfully since there was no electricity nor running water. They pointed to the names etched on the stained-glass windows, through which the sun was now streaming. These weren’t unknown names; they were family and friends. Pinder smiled, recalling that as an adult, and for a time, he was the organist for what he describes as a “nice choir and very spiritual church.”
The organ, now badly in need of repair, sits in the corner. For now, it’s being used as a place to display old photos, but Pinder wants to make sure that the organ is playable again and is starting a GoFundMe page to get help to make this happen. He even promised to play on it when it’s fixed.
We walked the sacred grounds of the black cemetery, and Gibson pointed out that the earliest recorded burial here was in 1889 of three-month-old Willie Barton. Van Valkenburgh explained why there are a vast number of graves inscribed with what looks to be an ‘X.’ “The company hired to do archaeological work found over 60 graves without markers and identified them with the Greek symbol for ‘unknown.’” Efforts to identify these remains have been frustrating but ongoing. The graves that are known are listed on the website.
Much work has gone into the renovation of the former cook shop/museum. Particularly when you look at the pictures of how much it has changed in the last few years. It will be a place where recorded oral histories, photographs, and other mementos from the John Wesley congregation will be displayed to the public. But to have that happen, the site must meet several criteria for both parking and accessibility, neither of which is insurmountable, just costly.
The group is thankful for the generosity and interest shown to them by the local community and families of the former congregation. Reed, who is the Treasurer of the organization, mentioned an example: “We got a check from a guy in Texas, and he added a little note on it—’My grandmother was born on Tilghman Street in Oxford, and her family walked to the church every Sunday, and she went to the black school on Tilghman Street.’”
One issue, the parking, has been solved. Jay Heim, a neighbor of the church, generously donated the land behind the cemetery to be used as a parking lot. But, just as permits and schedules were confirmed, the pandemic struck. The project is now getting back on track, and construction will start shortly to build the lot, pathway, and bathroom facility (which will feature an incinerating toilet!). Hopefully, soon after that, the property will become ADA (Americans with Disability Act) compliant.
So, what’s the plan for the next stage? Van Valkenburgh is hoping for a great future for this historic property. There will be events, lectures, readings, concerts, family reunions, and weddings. There will be coordination with other area museums. It will be a place, they hope, that like for Pinder and Gibson, others can also take away their own experiences.
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Val Cavalheri is a transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.