BUCKTOWN, Maryland — Long before visitors — from around the corner and world — began descending in early 2017 on the new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, activists and African-American parishioners of Bazzel United Methodist Church in Dorchester County’s Bucktown community first recognized the significance of Harriet Tubman with an annual celebration that started in the early 1960s.
Built in 1911, replacing an earlier wood frame church on the same property, Bazzel is partly secluded on three sides by trees in a quarter-acre lot with a grass driveway less than a mile down the road from the restored Bucktown Village Store. It was here Tubman visited as a child and suffered lifelong complications after being struck in the head.
In recent weeks a film crew touring Dorchester County to develop an updated promotional video for the visitor center contacted Jay Meredith, a respected community leader and proprietor of the Bucktown Store, to arrange a site visit to Bazzel. Meredith’s ancestors have been on the Eastern Shore since the 17th century. In the 1800s his family gave land which Bazzel is on, bordering the Brodess farm where Tubman was born as Araminta Ross around 1822, to faith leaders within the local African-American community.
Meredith, along with Tyrone Pinder, whose grandfather helped build the extant church, discovered a structure in dire need of preservation and quickly secured permission to cover the west roof with a tarp to prevent rainwater from seeping inside.
Upon the invitation of Morgan State University professor Dale Glenwood Green, chairman of the Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture, Meredith, accompanied by noted Tubman scholar Pat Lewis, presented on the immediate need to stabilize Bazzel United Methodist Church earlier this month on the campus of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
“The condition of Bazzel church in historic Bucktown, Maryland, is an emergency on many levels,” said Green, a descendant of Alexander Wayman, 7th bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “The historic African-American church is where the first cultural institutions of African-American peoples on the Eastern Shore emerge and begin to flourish. We cannot begin to trace their existence, contributions and significance without examining the historic churches which are at the root of communal and organized life.”
Status of Bazzel Church United Methodist Church
Stewardship of Bazzel falls under the Peninsula-Delaware Conference of the United Methodist Church, according to Rev. Keith Cornish, who grew up attending camp meetings and special services at Bazzel and served as pastor for nearly two decades until three years ago when his sister, Rev. Roslyn Watts, assumed leadership of the “charge.” Within rural communities, pastors have “charges,” which may include as many as a half-dozen small churches.
As Bazzel’s parishioners aged, the congregation began to shift to nearby churches. Bazzel was subsequently granted “limited service” status, according to Rev. Cornish, requiring two services to be held each year. Outside of funerals, an annual Harriet Tubman celebration and reunions, the church became inactive and fell into disuse. In recent years trustees have used a nearby church to raise funds to support the landscape maintenance. Pinder, whose family is well-known in the community and namesake for “Pindertown,” has informally served as caretaker of the grounds of Bazzel, as well as maintaining the African-American cemetery at Scott’s Chapel down the road.
“Bazzel church is a witness of our faith,” Rev. Roslyn Watts said. “Bazzel connects our voice across the ages and our goal is to preserve the church.”
Importance of Local History and Bazzel Church
Preservation of Bazzel would have been a top priority for legendary Tubman researcher and local history activist John Creighton, confirmed members of the Dorchester County Historical Society and Salisbury-based local historian and author Linda Duyer.
Creighton’s death in 2015 has been felt deeply throughout Eastern Shore communities, Duyer said.
Creighton was widely known on the shore and throughout the country for his self-taught expertise on Tubman and for empowering African-American communities to retain ownership in recognition of their indigenous history.
Tubman-Ross family representative Patricia Ross Hawkins told the Star Democrat, a local newspaper, in 2016, “He showed everyone how important our family legacy is.”
“Bucktown, the surrounding region, and more importantly, community members, are the seeds of the Tubman heritage celebrated nationally today,” Duyer said. “In these rural areas, communities and families are intimately interconnected. Tubman sprang from this area, her view of the world was shaped by the ancestors of the people here. Descendants think of Tubman as a treasured family member, honoring her in the tradition of a rural homecoming. I cannot think of a better way to honor Tubman than to protect the heritage of the community that was once her home.”
Green, a preservationist widely known for his advocacy and public research of “The Hill” community in Frederick Douglass’ native Talbot County, said the importance of stabilizing Bazzel is larger than symbolism.
“So many churches on the Shore, and specifically in Dorchester County, have been lost to time or face that threat now,” Green said. “These sacred buildings and their grounds are irreplaceable and yet they are also the most vulnerable.”
Green expressed confidence coordination between and within local heritage groups and church trustees along with Meredith, Pinder and residents of the Bucktown community will save the church.
“Stabilization, preservation and restoration of Bazzel Church is integral to uplifting the larger and more complete history of self-preservation of the African-American community in Dorchester County,” Green said. “But is also a leading example of the cooperation and reconciliation happening between families who have lived side by side for more than three centuries.”
Road Trip to Tubman Country
The historic Bucktown General Store at 4303 Bucktown Road in Cambridge, Maryland is open by reservation. Call (410) 901-9255 or go to https://bucktownstore.com.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center at 4068 Golden Hill Road in Church Creek, Maryland, is a 10-minute drive from the Bucktown Store. The visitor center is open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (410) 221-2290 or go to https://www.nps.gov/hatu/index.htm.
Dorchester County Maryland is roughly an hour and 45-minute drive in non-rush hour traffic from downtown Washington.