Preservation of Two Historic African American Churches on Seven Locks Road

We had an enthusiastic turnout for CJCA’s April community meeting and panel discussion, with at least 30 in-person attendees and our largest online audience since some of our pandemic Zoom meetings. The program highlighted the impressive restoration efforts at the Scotland A.M.E. Zion Church on Seven Locks Road near Tuckerman Lane and the First Agape A.M.E. Zion Church at Gibson Grove, which is just outside of Cabin John on Seven Locks and the Beltway underpass. These historic churches are part of Montgomery County’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation.

Moderating the discussion was Rebeccah Ballo, Historic Preservation Supervisor for the Montgomery County Planning Department, who manages the work of the county’s Historic Preservation Commission in overseeing the preservation and protection of historic districts and sites within the county. Ms. Ballo spoke about the county’s role in the work to preserve these two churches and 455 other Master Plan historic sites in the county. 

We welcomed Rev. Dr. Evalina Huggins, presiding elder of the Baltimore District of A.M.E. Zion churches, representing the historic Scotland A.M.E. Zion Church, and the church’s current pastor. Rev. Dr. Huggins provides supervisory oversight to 19 Baltimore District churches around the Beltway, including leadership to four historic houses of worship currently undertaking construction projects—Scotland and First Agape among them.

Scotland A.M.E. Zion Church was built by hand by Black congregants and opened in 1924. The original wood-frame structure, one of the last of its kind in the region, was nearly destroyed by floods and intense storms over the last five years. We were all amazed as Rev. Dr. Huggins shared photos of the church structure being lifted off the ground and set down on its new waterproof foundation. Rev. Dr. Huggins stressed that the county’s commitment to this project and restorative justice has been crucial to righting wrongs of the early 1960s for the Scotland community.

Rev. Edgar S. Bankhead, Sr., the pastor of First Agape A.M.E. Zion Church at Gibson Grove, was appointed to First Agape in 1996. Rev. Bankhead shared that the original Gibson Grove Church was built in 1898 on land donated by former slave Sarah Gibson, the founder of the once vibrant African American community of Gibson Grove (also known as No. 10) in Cabin John. Rev. Bankhead also spoke about the devastating fire on Ash Wednesday 2004 that put an abrupt end to the in-progress renovation. Stormwater erosion, a felled tree, the close proximity of the Beltway, and other challenges have long thwarted rebuilding of this historic treasure. 

A number of Gibson Grove descendants currently reside in Cabin John, including members of the White family, whose ancestors planned the community’s first Crab Feast, a fundraiser for the Cabin John Home Study group, in 1964. After eight years of Crab Feasts put on entirely by the Black community, the CJCA was asked to help organize the event, with the responsibilities and proceeds distributed to various causes benefitting the Cabin John community. The Crab Feast has now been a beloved tradition for nearly 60 years. 

The construction of I-495 in the early 1960s split the Gibson Grove community in two and took a significant amount of land from area landowners, impacting the Morningstar Moses Cemetery and Hall, and Gibson Grove Church properties.  Poor stormwater management for the highway project resulted in decades of runoff impacts at both sites—creating significant challenges to current preservation efforts.

Rev. Bankhead shared photos, renderings, and updates regarding the stabilization work at the First Agape site. This urgent work was funded by a legislative bond bill sponsored by our District 16 Maryland State Delegation following Delegate Sara Love and then Senator Susan Lee’s attendance at a Fall 2020 Morningstar Moses Cemetery and Hall site tour hosted by Friends of Moses Hall.

The timing of the planned reconstruction and expansion of the First Agape A.M.E. Zion Church building is dependent on the state’s expansion of I-495, which will include church property impacts mitigated by the state’s construction of new stormwater management infrastructure, a new church parking lot in conjunction with the replacement of the Seven Locks Beltway overpass, and a new sidewalk from the church to the entrance of the Morningstar Moses Cemetery and Hall site. First Agape is also receiving archaeological and technical support from the Maryland Department of Transportation related to the 2022 exhumation of an unidentified grave at the site.

Wood salvaged from trees removed from the property will be used in the construction of a new First Agape Church sanctuary that incorporates the historic Gibson Grove Church facade. The expanded building will include a new fellowship hall with an arts and STEM center. First Agape A.M.E. Zion Church has launched a fundraising campaign for the planned renovation.

The Cabin John community is grateful to Ms. Ballo, Rev. Bankhead, and Rev. Dr. Huggins for their participation in our April meeting and we wish them success in their good work to preserve our area’s treasured historic resources.

Learn More at:

Montgomery County – Montgomery Planning – Historic Preservation

Historic Preservation

National Park Service: Historic Resources Study – African American Communities Along the C&O Canal

http://npshistory.com/publications/choh/hrs-african-american-communities.pdf

Montgomery Planning – History of Scotland

https://montgomeryplanning.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Scotland-A.M.E.-Zion-Church_Historic-Overview_EHT-Traceries.r.pdf

First Agape A.M.E. Zion Church

https://www.1stagape.com

Scotland A.M.E. Zion Church

http://npshistory.com/publications/choh/hrs-african-american-communities.pdf

Preserve Black History in Montgomery County

By Charlotte Troup Leighton, Contributing Writer

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