The first and only time Sasha Lucas visited Ceres Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church, she felt like the ground was moving beneath her.
The cemetery didn’t feel secure, she thought. It felt like the graves were so shallow or frequent the ground moved with each step.
She noticed the rundown condition of the church — its damaged green shingles and windows that had been busted out.
She was there in 2011 to bury her dad, James Albert Lucas, who spent much of his life in Florida. She didn’t know why he’d want to be buried in the cemetery here. Or why so many other family members chose to be buried here.
After all, here isn’t exactly a thriving metropolis. Ceres Bethel African Methodist Episcopal sits in the mountains of Appalachia just north of Burkittsville in Gathland State Park. The church and cemetery are less than a mile from the Washington County line.
Remnants of a gravel driveway into the church are visible, but now it’s nearly inaccessible for a car without four-wheel drive. Even then, the drop off from the road to the old driveway is so steep most drivers risk damaging their vehicles’ undercarriages.
Staff photo by Bill Green Gravestones in the cemetery of the Ceres Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church located outside of Burkittsville …
The headstones in the cemetery date back 200 years. Some stones are broken. Others have toppled over. Some were moved and laid up against trees on the grounds. Even in 2011, the place had an eerie feeling.
“The condition of it really bothered me, especially at the time,” said Lucas, who spent her childhood split between Hagerstown and Florida and now lives in Europe as she’s waiting for her husband to get a work visa to come back to the U.S.
“It didn’t feel secure,” she continued. “I don’t want to imagine what his body and the other bodies around his are going through. It doesn’t seem like a peaceful way to rest.”
The once-thriving black community church has fallen in disrepair since it closed in 1984. There are few living people who know the history of the church and the cemetery, and the owners have shown an unwillingness to negotiate new uses or ways to preserve it. If an option for preservation doesn’t come forward, the future of the church, and the past it represents, appear bleak.
An early example of black churches
Rev. Thomas Henry founded Ceres Bethel AME along with several African Methodist Episcopal churches in the area, including Mount Zion, Union Bethel and Ebenezer AME. He acquired the land in 1858 and erected the church in 1870, according to its cornerstone.
The church and cemetery became a shining example of a post-Civil War black rural church. Before the war ended, the congregation included both free and enslaved blacks. As was the case with many black communities, children attended school on the same grounds, but the school building no longer exists.
The Ceres Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church outside of Burkittsville in Frederick County is rundown and in desperate need of repair an…
The church was mostly inhabited by descendants of slaves for the Lee family — one of the largest slaveholding families in Frederick County’s history, said Madeleine Butler, a longtime resident who has kept records of the church for years. The church was most active through the 1930s.
Butler’s mother-in-law Acheir Holland-Butler joined Ceres Bethel as a teenager. Acheir was one of 14 children who attended church there and walked there with her siblings for morning services. Acheir loved to play the organ and took lessons. She had the opportunity to play during church once when the reverend’s sister, the original organist, was out sick.
Butler met her husband, Randolph, when she was living in her home country of France. She left her family to move to the United States with Randolph at a time when women didn’t leave their families and homes to move across the world. But she was “young and in love,” she recalled. And upon arrival, Acheir took her in as if she was her own, sparking a relationship of admiration, Butler said.
“She was truly a remarkable woman,” she said. “She had such a strong will and perseverance. I was so impressed by her.”
Several of Acheir's family members are pictured in one of only a few known photos inside the church building. The 1919 photo depicts rows of black soldiers and black women of the Red Cross Auxiliary who just returned from World War I — many of whom attended the church. Several are buried in the cemetery.
In one of the few known photographs inside Ceres Bethel African Methodist Episcopal, black soldiers and black members of the Red Cross women’s…
Acheir eventually left the church, but many families continued going.
The Lucas family is grounded in the gospel.
In James Albert Lucas Sr.’s youth he sang and traveled with his siblings as his father ministered in the gospel. He lived much of his adult life in Bellview, Florida where he was a cross-country truck driver. Sasha Lucas isn’t sure if her dad ever even went to the church. But the family clearly has roots there, with nearly a dozen Lucases in the cemetery. Even so, it was the perfect place for her dad to be buried, Sasha said.
An avid fisher and hunter, James loved to be in rural areas, and have his share of open space. That coupled with his love of the gospel likely made Ceres Bethel an ideal resting place even if his family members hadn’t been buried there.
Historic grounds in need of help
The cemetery is largely filled with members of the Lucas, Henderson and Bruner families, who are all descendants of black families from the 1800s. Historic documents point to the rise of the automobile as a reason for the decline of the congregation. But the Henderson family never left. Some of the last remaining Hendersons with ties to the cemetery and the church live directly across from it.
Larry Henderson and Virginia Simms keep an eye on visitors who stop by the church, especially since over the last 20 years the church has been defiled by satanists and ghost hunters after it was featured in “The Blair Witch Project.”
Henderson declined to be interviewed for this story, aside from saying he thought it was a shame it had fallen in such disrepair and thought it was supposed to receive funding for repairs in recent years.
But aside from minimal funding to board up the walls to keep trespassers from entering to cause damage, no such dollars have come. And that’s typical for many predominantly black historic sites. Historic sites of black significance make up just 2 percent of the National Register of Historic Places, according to a recent story in the New Yorker.
The African American Resources, Cultural Heritage Society of Frederick County has partnered with other historic organizations in the past to try and obtain funding to preserve the church, but they’ve largely been unsuccessful.
AARCH’s biggest roadblock in preserving the church has been the owner of the church — the Washington D.C. AME conference. The conference has been unwilling to be involved, said David Key, the president of AARCH.
“This seems to be common that they are not interested in being involved in the preservation of these places,” Key said.
The rundown Ceres Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church outside of Burkittsville in Frederick County.
Officials with the Washington AME conference did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
AARCH also has a cemetery clean-up program that allows for the clean up two black cemeteries per year. Ceres Bethel is on the list, but the accessibility, or lack thereof, makes it a challenge to even attempt a clean-up, said cemetery historian and AARCH member Rick Smith.
“The major issue with these older cemeteries is the church is no longer in use, some have no church at all and [some are] in very out of the way locations,” Key added. “As a result, by the time we finish the clean-up, there’s no one to pick up on the maintenance.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge in preserving a church like Ceres Bethel lies in finding a use for the building, said Jessica Feldt, the preservation initiatives manager at Preservation Maryland. Community groups need to find a use for the building that the community would respond to and the owners would agree to, whether that be turning it into a museum, or a place for historic record keeping.
But Burkittsville’s rural roots don’t exactly make it a hotbed for tourism despite the amount of history in an around the town, so a museum may not be something that is often used. But, so long as the building is standing, Preservation Maryland officials remain interested in looking for ways to preserve the history that is on the grounds.
“This church has such a unique story to tell,” Feldt said. “It’s such a great example of how free blacks created their own community. It’s such an important part of community building that is being overlooked. There were battles going on all around them [in the Civil War] and their lives were being lived here.”
But it’s not uncommon for these sites to be overlooked in preservation, Feldt said. The resources, until recently, haven’t been there. Two of the AME churches founded by Rev. Henry in the South Mountain area have since lost their buildings.
But groups like hers, and people like Butler, are looking to change that.
“I am a recipient of all this black history, ” Butler, 78, said. “... I feel like I have to go out into the public domain and share it. People finally seem to be into it. For a long time they were not. No one learned about the Hollands or the Butlers. If I don’t do it, no one will.”
Perhaps she’s right. But few places celebrate and preserve their history the way Frederick County does. Many of Frederick’s most popular tourist destinations are specifically dedicated to preserving history — Monocacy National Battlefield, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and Catoctin Furnace to name a few.
And there’s clearly a desire to preserve this plot of land by many groups and organizations. But for the family members of those buried there, preservation is more than a desire.
It’s a necessity.
“In these small rural areas, there’s not a lot of black history to go and see,” Lucas said. “My family didn’t have a lot. It’s heartbreaking to see that the things that meant a lot to him are kind of broken.”
The Lucas family moved around a lot, but they always stayed together as a family. And they always came back home — home to this small plot of grass seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Because this is where their roots are, and will remain.
So long as someone keeps telling the story.