As recently as 30 years ago, Bowen's Chapel was a hive of activity, the center of African-American life in the hills northeast of Union Bridge in Carroll County.
The one-room structure was a school for generations of black children. It housed a church for their families. It played host to more potluck dinners, reunions and Christmas plays than the remaining locals can count.
But the school moved away decades ago, the community center behind it stands all but idle, and the church hasn't held services since 2012.
Now the property is at the center of a legal dispute between the descendants of the former slaves who erected the building in 1867 and the small Delaware-based Christian denomination the descendants once paid to provide them with pastors.
"It's a fight over a building that is a rare monument to an important chapter of Carroll County and American history," says Tambra Smith Powell, a Union Bridge resident whose great-great-great-grandfather, the freedman John Henry Thompson, was one of the nine original trustees.
Powell and her relatives stake their claim largely on the orginal deed, which grants ownership to the nine trustees "and their successors"— the only deed to the property ever recorded in Carroll County.
The African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant Church and Connection counters that by taking part in conference activities over a course of years, the congregation at Bowen's Chapel agreed to a bylaw that says member churches "hold all church property for the benefit of the Conference."
Powell says she'd like to establish a nonprofit that would turn Bowen's Chapel into a museum. The plaintiff says through a lawyer that "there is strong intent" to revive the chapel as an active congregation — or, failing that, to preserve it "for the benefit of Conference members."
The Rev. Delbert L. Jackson, bishop of the conference, has pressed his legal case in Carroll County Circuit Court over the course of three years, as Powell and her family have dug in for a battle that they say transcends the boundaries of legal argument and goes to the heart of who they are.
Pride in everything
On a recent morning, Powell and her husband, Michael, arrived in front of the chapel, a modest, well-kept frame structure on a quarter-acre lot at Bark Hill Road and Raywell Avenue.
They maintain the buildings and grounds, just as members of Tambra's family have done since the the Civil War — another reason her attorney, Stacy Shaffer of Westminster, insists they're the rightful owners.
Tambra Powell has with her a pile of photographs, mostly black-and-whites of the ancestors and relations who have lived in the area and made this building a part of their lives.
"They took such pride in everything — their appearance, the way they carried themselves," she says.
To the Powells and other families with roots in the area, the value of Bowen's Chapel is personal as well as historical.
Three months before the end of the Civil War, Congress, prompted by President Abraham Lincoln, established the Freedmen's Bureau to help newly freed slaves. Among the agency's missions was building schools for "colored" children in Southern and border states.
John Thompson was one of a group of nine freed slaves who had settled near Middletown, or "Muttontown," as many called it then. The bureau granted them $50 and sent building materials, the group bought a tiny spread from a white family, and Thompson and friends constructed the place.
Mimi Ashcraft, a local researcher who frequently writes articles on behalf of the Historical Society of Carroll County, says enrollment at what was then called Bark Hill School was always robust.
"That shows the community had a strong commitment to education," she says.
Soon the space was divided in two, with the front half housing a church. In 1892, the county school board added a second building and leased it out as a school, freeing the first to become a full-fledged chapel.
Powell says Bowen's Chapel had become something her enslaved ancestors could only have dreamed of: a refuge and a foundation for building a future.
The African Union First Colored Methodist Protestant Church and Connection — AUMPCC, as its lawyers call it — is a hybrid of two black church traditions born during slavery in the early 1800s. It came together as a Methodist conference in the 1860s .
It claims about 1,000 congregants and approximately 30 churches in the Mid-Atlantic, according to Bruce Hemphill, the Elkton-based attorney for conference leader Jackson.
Jackson, 71, of Newark, Del., became bishop in 1988.
The suit he has filed over Bowen's Chapel on behalf of the conference is the third such action he has taken against a Maryland congregation since 2010. The first two resulted in settlements.
Through his lawyer, Jackson concedes the conference has never mowed the lawn, fixed the roof, painted the buildings or funded the chapel in any way.
The conference's role "is to provide neither physical labor nor financial support to local churches," Hemphill wrote in an email.
Its support, he added, is "more theological, doctrinal and developmental."
Tambra Powell was raised in Union Bridge by the late Evelyn "Evey" Brooks Howard and George Howard of Union Bridge. Evey, a direct Thompson descendant, attended church in the building throughout her 90 years. She organized concerts, directed plays and told children about their ancestors. A 1993 article in The Baltimore Sun called her "the foundation of [Bowen's] Chapel."
George took care of the property at his own expense, as Evey's forebears had done, and the couple taught Powell, their biracial niece and adopted daughter, that Bowen's Chapel stood for hard work, self-reliance and the importance of family.
Both sides agree that Bowen's Chapel's affliation with the conference began generations ago and continued through 2008, by which time the congregation — by then down to seven members — had stopped paying dues or taking part in conference activities.
Jackson says through Hemphill that Bowen's Chapel, by "being an active participant in [the conference] for many years beginning in the 1920s," bound itself to the collection of conference bylaws known as The Book of Discipline.
It was first written in the early 19th Century and has been revised 19 times, most recently under Jackson's direction in 1998.
According to the bylaws, it's the conference's responsibility "to take care of churches that have ceased their function to insure that the property is maintained for the benefit of the Conference members," Hemphill writes. A congregation that wants to leave the conference is required to vacate the church, Hemphill says, with the member church "remaining the property of the AUMPCC."
It's the bishop's obligation "to protect that asset for the restart of a new congregation" or "to sell the property and use the benefit to assist another church," he adds.
Powell says her family had no idea paying $2,500 per year for a pastor implied such a contract.
She says the lawsuit has made her feel "incensed," "affronted" and frightened that an out-of-state entity with unknown intentions could end up owning the place.
"This church came into being right after slavery, and it has survived for 150 years," she says. "To lose it now would be devastating."
The suit Jackson filed three years ago has gone through enough legal back-and-forth to fill five accordion folders in Shaffer's office.
She took the case on pro bono after meeting Powell.
"Something about it spoke to me," she says.
While Jackson argues the Book of Discipline is paramount, Shaffer says the 1867 deed is conclusive, that the "successors" it mentions can mean "descendants," and that the family's maintenance work connotes ownership.
She also says that AUMPCC was not legally incorporated until 1941, possibly undermining its claim of authority over Bowen's Chapel.
The plaintiffs published notice of the lawsuit in the Carroll County Times last month on court order. Anyone who wishes to declare an interest in the case on behalf of the defendants may do so through May 19.
Ashcraft says Bowen's Chapel is a cause worth getting behind.
The only other school in Carroll County built with Freedmen's Bureau money was built for the black community in Westminster, she reports, and that school hasn't existed for years.
"Bowen's is the only one left," she says.