Heading up Seven Locks Road towards River Road, the woods behind the Evergreen development hide a significant piece of Cabin John history. That history continues, albeit in a near dilapidated state, just a few steps away. Moses Hall lodge and cemetery and the Gibson Grove A.M.E. Zion Church, both established around the turn of the 20th century, played a fundamental role in Cabin John’s African American history and in the development of Cabin John itself. This deep connection with Gibson Grove’s past still resonates in the community today. However, this history is facing a new and urgent threat with the proposed widening of the beltway, and the fate of this significant burial ground is up in the air.
Built in 1898, the original Gibson Grove Church was named in honor of Mrs. Sarah Gibson, a former slave who lived in this area. Sarah, a seamstress, was born in Virginia and was married to Louis Gibson, a wagon driver and field hand. After the Civil War, she and Louis were separated as they fled the plantation where they were enslaved. Sarah made the arduous journey towards Washington, D.C. with her children, and was eventually reunited with her husband at the Shiloh Baptist Church, a known meeting place for former slaves.
Sarah and Louis settled in Potomac where they worked on a farm. At that time, much of the land in Cabin John was owned by J.D.W. Moore (the father of Lilly Stone). In the 1880s, J.D.W. Moore sold plots of land along Seven Locks Road to several farm workers; some ten families purchased acreage and a community was born.
Sarah and Louis were among the first to buy land from Moore, and purchased four and half acres. (Ninety-two-year-old Mrs. Lena Brown recalled in Elizabeth Kytle’s Time Was (1976) that her father had bought four and half acres for $300; another source notes the land was purchased for $101). Sarah Gibson, a religious woman who longed for a place near home to worship, donated a part of her property for the construction of a church. The original Gibson Grove Church stood on the lower south side of the present site and was built with trees from Sarah’s land. Baptisms took place in the nearby Cabin John Creek, and the church itself had a burial ground.
In 1923, the current church was built on the same site and known as “the little white church on the hill” (Alexandra Jones, Gibson Grove Gone But Not Forgotten, 2010). In a 2000 report, the Maryland Historical Trust noted that the church was “an excellent example of early 20th century vernacular ecclesiastical design, (as) it includes an entry vestibule, the sanctuary, and a small side and rear addition.” The Trust noted that the church retained “integrity of location, design, setting, feeling, and association” and that it derives its significance from “its association with the African American settlement of Gibson Grove that was founded in the 1880s by former slaves…it is the only remaining structure associated with the African American Gibson Grove community, which grew out of Moore’s land sales to his black farm workers.”
In 2002, due to its shrinking numbers, Gibson Grove Church closed. The church was taken over by a new congregation, the First Agape A.M.E. Zion Church. On Ash Wednesday 2004, a fire in the church caused significant damage. The church has yet to reopen. Despite its current state, much of Gibson Grove Church’s quiet character remained evident over the years, from its simple gabled roof, modest entry, and belfry.
Alongside the church property, which was bisected by the beltway in the early 1960s, is Moses Hall and cemetery. On a windy day, the crackling and rustling of the overgrown bamboo nearly drowns out the noise of the traffic. The first hints of the historical importance of this site are the few visible gravestones emerging from overgrown brush and leaves. One headstone reads “Wallace Mason Born May 14, 1899 Died Sept 1st, 1931.” Another marks the resting place of “Allen White 1925-1973,” who is believed to be the last person buried in this sacred ground.
The Morningstar Tabernacle Number 88, Ancient United Order of Sons and Daughters, Brothers and Sisters of Moses—or Moses Hall—was one of many lodges founded by former slaves throughout the area. Moses Hall was intrinsic to the Gibson Grove Church community, and played a vital role in the community’s self sufficiency during segregation. Everyone was a member, and burial in the cemetery was one of the privileges (Jones, 2010). Built on land conveyed by George and Surilla Scott in 1887, the Morningstar Tabernacle Number 88 was a secret fraternal organization. The hall was a two story wood building constructed to serve as a center of social life for former slaves in the area: as a community center, a school, and meeting house.
Moses Hall remained an essential part of the community until younger members began to move away from the area. Today, the hall’s rock wall foundation, barely visible within the thick bamboo, is all that’s left. The cemetery is believed to be the site of over 50 burials, and the recent effort cleanup effort revealed more than 100 grave markers, consisting of headstones or even simple rocks from the nearby quarry. Sarah Gibson, who died in January 1929, is buried here.
Local Cabin John resident Austin White I of Carver Rd. recalls visiting Moses Hall as a child: his grandmother would gather him and his cousins together one or two times a month. They’d walk from their nearby homes through woods and the cemetery to sweep the floors of the hall, put out water, and light the kerosene lamps ahead of meetings.
Mr. White, at 66 years young, is a lifelong Cabin John resident. His family history reaches far back within Cabin John and the Gibson Grove Church: he and his five siblings were all baptized there and attended services; his son, Austin White II (pictured in the cleanup story on pg. X), went to Sunday school before the church closed. Mr. White’s mother, Elizabeth, served as an usher at the church all of her life and was believed to have the last funeral in Gibson Grove Church in 1991. Nathan White, a cousin, is the last person to be married in the church. Mr. White’s descendants trace back to the many families who established the Gibson Grove community—including the Crawford, Harris, and White families—all of whom contributed to the maintenance of Moses Hall. Mr. White’s father Rodney is buried in Moses Hall cemetery, as is his uncle, grandmother, and other family members.
Though Gibson Grove Church was granted historical status some years ago, the hallowed ground of Moses Hall cemetery has yet to be designated for historic preservation. Yet the two sites are very much intertwined. History connects the past with the present, reflecting the deep roots of the Cabin John African American settlement along Seven Locks Road. Moses Hall and Gibson Grove Church are part of the historical narrative of both Cabin John and many of its families today.
By Rachel Donnan
[See photos by accessing the article in the Village News Archive: 2020 March Newsletter]