Tucked into an unassuming corner in southwestern Columbia sits a historic Black church with roots dating back before the Civil War, including connections to the Underground Railroad.

Now after receiving $233,500 in state funding, the 150-person congregation is hoping it will be better able to preserve that history.

Marion Esterling, the pastor of Locust United Methodist Church, said that he felt humbled to be one of 24 Maryland groups to get the funding and that the congregation looked forward to using it to carry on the church’s legacy “for another 155 years.”

The church will use the money for renovations on the existing building — some that they have already begun working on — as well as an addition, said Michele Crosby, grant manager and congregation member.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The renovations include new flooring and roofing repairs, bathroom upgrades, painting and security and surveillance enhancements, among other maintenance and carpentry repairs, Crosby said.

The church also wants to create a nook to house artifacts, including historical documents and photos.

Crosby, who wrote the grant, said she was ecstatic to find out the church received the award to preserve history because “we really are a significant piece of history to that area.”

The grant is part of the African American Heritage Preservation Program, which works to “identify and preserve buildings, communities and sites of historical and cultural importance to the African American experience in Maryland.”

The church houses layers of history within its walls, and members of the congregation also hold memories and their own artifacts. A group of formerly enslaved people founded the church in 1869, and some of their descendants are part of the church today, Crosby said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The church has quite literally stood through history, she said. The cemetery behind the church is a verified Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad stop.

The church and cemetery are located in a place that used to be called Freetown, which was an old freed slave settlement in Columbia, according to the book “Seeking Freedom: A History of the Underground Railroad in Howard County, Maryland.”

“Oral history says that Harriet Tubman led hundreds of slaves to freedom by the Underground Railroad, which partially ran through Freetown in Howard County,” according to the book.

Freetown was first called “Athol Enlarged,” according to “Seeking Freedom.” In 1845, a slaveholder named Nicholas Worthington freed his 17 slaves, gave them varying sums of money, along with 150 acres of land that later became known as Freetown.

All that remains of the old Freetown is Freetown Road, a portion of Guilford Road called Harriet Tubman Lane, and Locust United Methodist Church and its cemetery.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Esterling hopes that people can look to the church to learn about African American history in their very own backyards.

The church was one of two sites in Howard County to receive the state funding. Bushy Park Community Cemetery in Cooksville was awarded a $63,500 grant, according to a press release.

“To be recognized as a faith community by the state because of historical reasons around slavery and all these other things, it couldn’t have come at a better time,” Esterling said. “We’ve been trudging along for quite some time and to finally be recognized for who we are and what we’ve been contributing means something.”

Abby Zimmardi is a reporter covering Howard County for The Baltimore Banner. Zimmardi earned her master’s degree from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism in December 2022.

More From The Banner