As it crumbles, seeking the mystery owner of old Ebenezer A.M.E. Church

SCHURCH03
Tia Manon stands in front of what used to be Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Tia Manon trudged through the swampy cemetery of the old Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, looking for two names belonging to one man.

Perry Ringgold was a slave who escaped the South on the Underground Railroad. James Williams was the free man he became after he was harbored by a Quaker family in Exton.

According to family lore, this relative of Manon's helped found the East Whiteland church in 1832, but none of the stone markers bore a trace of him, by either name. She did come across one name she recognized, a Reason - William Reason. Could he have been an ancestor of her late husband, George Reason?

With that visit nearly a decade ago, Manon began researching the history of the one-room fieldstone church, abandoned in the early 1900s after serving a community of former slaves and indentured servants. Yet, as its past emerged with her work, the structure was vanishing. The roof fell in, the walls deteriorated. A phalanx of weeds and poison ivy crept over it, and obscured 80-some graves.

"It makes you feel very, very sad," said Manon, 47, of Paoli, a student at Immaculata University.

She is among a group of neighbors and history buffs who want to clean up and preserve the two-acre tract on Bacton Hill Road. Officials of the Chester County township said that they will coordinate the effort, but that they first need permission from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which they believe owns the property.

But it's not that simple.

Years ago, Manon says, a national A.M.E. official told her the denomination had no record of Ebenezer - also called Abenezer in old newspaper articles. But last week, the Rev. Dr. Mark Kelly Tyler, senior pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia, said a record may indeed exist. The challenge will be finding it.

"We don't know enough about the property," he said. "Let's go through all the facts and find out if the church was truly abandoned, or sold to someone else who left it."

The A.M.E. Church has gone to court over questions of ownership of worship sites - a determination that can be a tangled matter requiring extensive research, said the Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Fry Brown, executive director of the national denomination's department of research and scholarship.

Should the A.M.E. Church prove to be the owner, Tyler said, "we will want to have some involvement - with the leadership of our bishop - in deciding how to memorialize it."

'Nobody is left'

The 2.5 million-member A.M.E. Church, founded in Philadelphia by Bishop Richard Allen in 1816, is the oldest independent Protestant denomination established by African Americans. It currently has 7,000 congregations, but the number that sprang up over the centuries and then vanished is unknown.

Chester County is filled with the ghosts of churches past. Like Ebenezer, they grew in concert with pre-Civil War black communities in locations such as Uwchlan and Downingtown, said Renee Carey, a Chester County history enthusiast and South Coatesville borough councilwoman who has researched black churches and cemeteries.

Some worship sites were rendered obsolete by flocks that needed more space or better accommodations. Others fell victim to the poverty of black neighborhoods that could barely sustain a congregation from Sunday to Sunday, or afford to keep up a building, Tyler said.

"Once the population moves, nobody is left to pay attention. It happens all over the place," said Edna Greene Medford, a professor of history at Howard University and a leading figure in the preservation of the African Burial Ground in New York, where more than 15,000 people, free and enslaved, were buried between the 1690s and 1794.

Whither goes the congregation, so goes its history. The result can be seeming orphans like Ebenezer.

Current Chester County tax records don't solve the mystery. They name the property owner as "the African Methodist Episcopal Church, RD 1, Malvern." But the closest A.M.E. congregation, St. Paul A.M.E. Church in Malvern, was founded independently and is not related.

So, for clues to Ebenezer's life and times, Manon and others have had to scour government records, books, and newspapers. They even found a reference to it as a Baptist church, in an article from the 1930s.

The parcel's 1832 deed of trust transfers ownership of the land from James Malin, a prominent Quaker farmer involved in the Underground Railroad, to three African Americans - "Samuel Davis, Ishmael Ells, and Charles Kimbul" - for the purpose of constructing a church with a burial ground in East Whiteland.

Ebenezer's floor was a raised platform on stone piers, according to research by archival consultant Jonathan L. Hoppe, for the Chester County Historical Society. Its single room had a door facing the road; opposite was the raised pulpit. The interior walls were covered in wainscoting.

The church became a locus of an African American community of former slaves and indentured servants who lived in cabins and worked on farms and quarries in the area, according to the 1965 book A Brief History of East Whiteland Township, by J. Gilmore Wilson.

The building was the congregation's home until about 1910. After that, history is unclear.

Many of the cemetery's grave markers are unreadable, but until recent years, it was possible to find among the resting places those of married couples, a 12-year-old girl, a 9-month-old boy. One of the last people buried there was Joshua Johnson, a Civil War veteran who fought with the U.S. Colored Troops regiment. He was born in 1846 and died in 1916.

Johnson's grave stirred the interest of Carla Zambelli, a history buff who lives nearby. She climbed a fence at the property in 2013 to look at what she thought was a farm.

"Here is the grave of someone who fought in the Civil War, and there's this tattered American flag, and you look around under all these weeds, and there are headstones half standing and toppled over," said Zambelli, of East Whiteland. "This is someone's history."

Piqued interest

Over the years, the cemetery piqued the interest of others in the neighborhood. Two Boy Scouts made it the subject of an Eagle Scout project. Award-winning poet A.V. Christie, who lived across the street before her death earlier this year, attended township meetings to exhort officials to help tend the property, said Tim Caban, chairman of the East Whiteland Township Historical Commission.

Christie enlisted her own corps of volunteers to cut back weeds, compiled photos and documents, and was interested in getting the property on the National Register of Historic Places, Manon said.

Today, visiting the overgrown cemetery is nearly impossible. But Manon did manage to find a likely connection between her husband, George, and the William Reason whose grave she spotted there years ago. He was probably a great-uncle or cousin, said Bonnie Reason, of Malvern, George's sister.

"I would love to see it restored," Manon said of the cemetery. "It's 184 years old. That's an incredible amount of history."

kholmes@phillynews.com 610-313-8211