On an April morning in 1868, eighteen young African American students filed into a church in Sharpsburg, Maryland, to begin lessons in a new Freedmen’s Bureau school funded by the local African American community.
Twelve of the youngsters had been enslaved only four years earlier, before Maryland abolished slavery in 1864. Their teacher, Ezra Johnson, christened the school “American Union.” The church, Tolson’s Chapel, was a small board-and-batten structure which had been built in 1866 on land donated by a Sharpsburg African American couple.
The church became the spiritual and educational center of a vibrant community of African American families in Sharpsburg after the Civil War, and a symbol of their struggles and triumphs.
Those buried in the cemetery were witness to and participants in these momentous events – Hilary Watson, a former slave who became a Trustee of Tolson’s Chapel and built his own house on the same street; Wilson Middleton who volunteered and fought in the Union Army; James Simon, who taught in the school in Tolson’s; and Nancy Campbell, manumitted before the Civil War, who donated a bible to the church, the Nancy Camel bible is currently on display in the Antietam National Battlefield museum.
Tolson's Chapel and School was designated as a National Historic Landmark on January 13, 2021.