Last week I took a walk out to the former Harvey’s Chapel AME church site in the woods on the southwest side of Hillsborough, led by Harold Russell–a lifelong member of the church and community historian–and Tom Magnuson–one of the founders of the Backways project and the director of the Trading Path Association. Starting on a small path, we quickly veered off into the forest, guided by Tom’s GPS and keen eye for the subtle signs of former habitation. I’ve been walking in the woods for Backways a lot recently, and my gaze is beginning to train itself towards small piles of milky quartz, fence lines, chimney stones, and the slight depressions of overgrown roadbeds cut into the earth that give us hints of places once called home. The woods around the former chapel site are full of these signs, indicating that far from being “untouched” forest, this place is host to many layers of human history and social life.
Harvey’s Chapel grew out of a “brush arbor” worship community, establishing their first fixed location in these woods in 1892. After moving locations twice, the congregation built a chapel about 2 miles from the original site in the 1940s, where they continue to gather today. Many of the current members are descended from the founding group of black families. The Backways project reached out to Harold Russell after we learned that Harvey’s Chapel was forced to move from the original site in the 1930s when the road on which it was located fell into such a state of disrepair that the congregation could no longer access the church. We are currently working to uncover more information about the process that led to the closure of this road, as well as to understand more about the experiences of the people who lived, worked, and worshipped along it, and I will share more on this blog in the coming weeks and months.
The former church site sits high up on a ridge, overlooking the calm and shallow water of Crabtree Creek. Many of the graves in the cemetery are marked with head and foot stones without visible inscriptions, although a few have engraved markers. One of the last people buried in the cemetery was Eddie Haithcock in 1935. Mr. Russell’s ancestor, John Wesley Thompson, is buried nearby. The outline of the church foundation is still visible, the entrance marked by two large milky quartz stones.
Mr. Russell was born after the church moved from this initial site, but the church community continued to baptize children in the creek for some years afterwards. When we approached the creek he told me with a big smile, “I think I was baptized here.” We found a spot that looked as if it had once been dammed for a baptismal pool, and a terraced area on the bank above that had been lined with quartz.
It’s hard to put into words the power of connecting to places like this that have been written off the map. I recently moved back to the neighborhood where I grew up, about a mile away from Harvey’s Chapel. Learning more about the layered histories embedded in the landscape I call home has been a deeply meaningful experience, and I can only imagine the significance of this place for the members of Harvey’s Chapel whose ancestors worshipped, celebrated, mourned, and were laid to rest here. Mr. Russell’s dedicated work to preserve the Chapel’s history is a testament to the power of black place-making, and it also hints at the forces that have attempted to erase black and rural places from public memory: when Mr. Russell was researching the former site, he discovered that it wasn’t included in the public land records, and had to go through an extensive process to get it entered using the original deeds. He describes the process here: