I Have Started for Canaan: The Story of the African American Town of Sugarland

I don’t have romantic notions about what writers do—but every so often, our work has profound implications for neighbors and friends.

In January 2019, I met two great-granddaughters of the founders of Sugarland, a town established by former slaves immediately after emancipation in rural Montgomery County, Maryland. My new friends were tenacious historians who had collected 150 years’ worth of sources—photographs, meeting minutes, construction contracts, land deeds, funeral programs, military records, church ledgers, oral histories, artifacts, you name it—and they were ready to turn their collection into a book for a wide audience. After nearly two years of brainstorming and collaboration, we’re finally putting that book in readers’ hands.

Defying familiar narratives of the African American experience that focus on sharecropping or urban life, I Have Started for Canaan is a remarkable chronicle of rural self-sufficiency. In a corner of the countryside 20 miles from the nation’s capital, the Sugarland families owned 200 acres of farmland immediately after the Civil War. At its height, their town boasted a schoolhouse, a general store, a post office, a practice hall for a brass band, and a church that still stands today. To the best of our knowledge, I Have Started for Canaan is the first book-length history of a Reconstruction-era African American town in Maryland.

To learn more about the work that went into this book and the richness of the primary sources in the Sugarland collection, check out this online presentation I gave in May. If you’d like to buy a copy, our friends at the Montgomery Countryside Alliance are fulfilling mail orders—or you can email me about obtaining a copy and paying via Paypal. (I’ll update this post as other sales venues become available.)

I Have Started for Canaan was a volunteer project for me, so every dime of profit from book sales will go back to the Sugarland Ethno-History Project for the upkeep of their cemetery and historic 1894 church, the preservation of their collection, and—if all goes well—the eventual creation of a small museum. I’m proud to have helped bring this story to the world, and I hope you’ll be as inspired as I was to hear the clear, confident voices of the Sugarland founders resound across 150 years.

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