May Day raises awareness, funds to preserve Dorchester's Harrisville-Malone legacy

By Debra R. Messick, Special to Dorchester Banner
Posted 6/2/22

Down a quiet country road near the Madison Firehouse off Route 16, a refurbished steeple rises like a beacon, leading the way to the remaining vestige of Malone’s Church and surrounding …

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May Day raises awareness, funds to preserve Dorchester's Harrisville-Malone legacy

Posted

Down a quiet country road near the Madison Firehouse off Route 16, a refurbished steeple rises like a beacon, leading the way to the remaining vestige of Malone’s Church and surrounding internment grounds, designated as Stop No. 8 on the Harriet Tubman Byway.

Members of the Tubman family are buried there, and recent documentation indicates that Tubman's birth and early life took place nearby.

The site, which once served as the focal point of close-knit surrounding African American communities in Harrisville, Church Creek, Madison, Smithville and Taylors Island, remains dear to the hearts of those whose families lived and worshipped here and whose remains rest beneath towering trees.

During its active years, a May Day celebration was held annually, drawing in participants from churches nearby and as far as Pennsylvania, for a combination camp meeting and reunion, overflowing with food, fellowship and the joyful strains of visiting singing and prayer bands who spilled out from the church onto the grounds, needing no music, just voices, marching feet and clapping hands.

Over the years, as the local population decreased and church membership dwindled, its active role as a sanctuary and community hub came to a close. Eventually, the building fell into disrepair. Burials continued to be performed, but upkeep of the grounds and headstones became a challenge. Grass mowers needed to be hired now, and vandalism began rearing its ugly head.

But the drive to preserve the site and its sacred roots, instead of diminishing, has only grown stronger, evidenced by the efforts of the nonprofit, all-volunteer Harrisville Malone Cemetery Maintenance Fund committee.

The group was awarded an $8,000 grant from Preservation Maryland in 2018, funding work on restoring the steeple, overseen by contractor Victor Macsorley.

Renna Mckinney has served as committee president since her mother, also actively involved, passed away in 2009.

Regularly pursuing grants, the group also held fundraising events which fell victim to the recent pandemic lockdown.

Though not fully understanding what they were all about at the time, Mckinney's fond memories of attending May Day gatherings as a child bubbled up, transforming into an idea, then a plan, to resurrect it, with the goal of raising funds and awareness among family members near and far that "we're still here, with work to do and promises yet to keep," she said.

When setting the date for May 21, she took it as a sign when learning that the final May Day had been held on May 18, 1997, almost 25 years ago to the day.

After exhaustive planning, a forecast calling for scorching temperatures in the 90s raised yet another challenge. But like the ancestors whose memories they came to honor, plenty of Harrisville-Malone faithful made the pilgrimage, with overflow parking spilling out onto the road and steadily arriving shuttle busloads full of eager participants.

As in days gone by, children played, cousins hugged and good food was enjoyed. Stirring and upbeat songs of praise offered thanks and affirmations of faith, along with a ceremonial African Drum Call and Libation to mark the occasion.

Under a wide tent providing shade, many waved traditional hand-held fans which had been distributed, while others reveled in viewing the proceedings from beneath personal umbrellas.

Parched throats were cooled with help from the Lemonade Kids' popular stand, tirelessly operated by Mariah Johnson, 9, and Jeremiah Adkins,12.

Four-year-old Tegan McKinney, leader Renna's granddaughter whom she raised following her mom's death nine days after giving birth, seemed to be following in her family's footsteps when she stepped up to the microphone and welcomed the crowd.

Worship leader Vanessa Johnson, after offering thanks to God, drew chuckles saying, "It's a little bit hot, but Lord knows, it's far hotter somewhere else."

Pastor Andre Kane, whose ancestor, Civil War veteran Sgt. David Kane is buried there, asked that those gathered be protected while reminding them of its importance.

"God blessed us and brought us together, families from far and wide, to always remember these are our roots. We've got to always be thankful where we came from, and never lose sight of who we are."

More than 80 members of Kane's extended family, wearing numbers, name tags and T-shirts bearing the words Clara Etta Kane's Crew, 2022, Sgt. David Kane, had traveled from shores as distant as Chesapeake Beach; Atlanta, Georgia; and Florida.

In honor of five Civil War veterans, tributes were read and military taps were played.

Rev. Samuel Jerry Colbert provided historical background on singing and praying bands, setting the stage for a spirited presentation by some of its last remaining practitioners.

After Tammy Washington vividly recounted the history of May Days past, the old church was opened for visitors to tour and view a display of member memorials.

Throughout the day's events, people streamed by foot toward the headstones in the distance to pay their respects. Children of all ages gathered around resting spots with parents, grandparent, and great-grandparents to preserve the moment in a photograph.

With her mother, grandmother and more generations buried there, Mckinney disclosed that her own plot also has been purchased, noting that when the time comes, there's nowhere else she wants to be than on this plot of land. But she's determined to also leave a living legacy here.

 "Our mission is to preserve the history and continue to educate the surrounding communities near and far of the breathtaking heritage of our ancestors, to tell the story of their faith, strength and love for their church, families and communities.

“It is our plan to repurpose the building as an interpretive center to document and share the history of those ties to the Harrisville and Madison communities," McKinney added.

Tax deductible donations may be made payable to HMCMF and sent to PO Box 143, Madison, MD 21677. For more information, call 410-443-1018 or email rennamckinney@ymail.com.