Two white wood-frame buildings and a cemetery are all that's left of an African American hamlet in Mount Laurel - all, that is, but the rich history that still clings to the place.
In the 19th century, runaway slaves heading north to freedom found temporary refuge in houses surrounding the Colemantown Meeting House on Elbo Lane, a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Residents, some of them freed slaves, worshipped at the meeting house and later at the neighboring Jacob's Chapel, which remains in use by a 135-member congregation.
"There are a lot of stories here of people who succeeded against all odds," said the Rev. Terrell Person, 63, pastor of the A.M.E. chapel. "These are state and national stories that need to be told; they're part of our fabric and history."
Both buildings were placed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places this year and are expected to be added to the National Register by the end of this month.
Their recognition comes as the chapel's congregation plans a May 18 program of reenactments and musical performances to celebrate the history of the Burlington County community established in 1828.
The church hopes to raise funds to restore the deteriorating meeting house to its 19th-century appearance, build a visitor center, and offer regular tours.
Colemantown first drew Person about 20 years ago - not as a religious leader but as a worker making foundation repairs on the meeting house.
"The pastor [at Jacob's Chapel] had died, and I remember saying, 'Whoever gets this job has a heavy responsibility,' " said Person, who was pastor of a Sicklerville church. "A few months later, I got a call from one of the presiding church elders to go to Jacob's Chapel, and I've been here since then."
Person revels in the history of the site even as he tries to restore it and plan for the future. Behind the chapel, he looked over the headstones of a small cemetery and mused about the past.
"If these stones could talk . . . " said the pastor, who lives in Hainesport.
James Still, the legendary "black doctor of the Pines," "is buried back there along with Civil War soldiers," members of Colored Troop units who fought for the Union and their own freedom.
Person, a great-great-grandson of Still, walked to his ancestor's grave, marked by a weathered stone obelisk. The self-educated son of slaves died in 1882 as one of South Jersey's wealthiest landowners. Nearby, flags decorated the graves of Civil War veterans.
Applications for the chapel's and meeting house's inclusion on the state and national registers were prepared by historian Paul W. Schopp of Riverton, who studied hundreds of records to document the community's history. The designations should help the church gain recognition and raise funds.
"These are valuable, historic buildings . . . silent witnesses to what happened here," Schopp said. "Up until the early 1990s, we still had a house here - the last surviving residence of Colemantown - but it's gone now."
The residents worshipped at the Colemantown Meeting House. A portion of the building was constructed in the 1820s, possibly as a schoolhouse at what is now Brace and Church Roads. It was moved to the north side of Elbo Lane in 1840 and to its current location on the south side in the mid-1960s, Schopp said.
Charles Coleman, one of the earliest black landowners at the site, had purchased 11/2 acres along Elbo from a local Quaker for $30 in 1828. The same Quaker sold an adjoining 11/2 half acres to Edward Wilson for the same price.
Coleman lent his name to the hamlet, where he and Wilson built small frame dwellings they leased to area black residents and new arrivals, Schopp said.
The church has continued to make history in more recent times. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the push by members for affordable housing helped lead to the landmark Mount Laurel state court decisions, requiring municipalities to use their zoning powers to provide opportunities for low- and moderate-income households.
Today, congregation members come from Mount Laurel, Cinnaminson, Camden, Willingboro, Marlton, and Tabernacle.
"The history here is not only important to the church, but to the life of the community," Person said. "We're a small congregation and doing our best to preserve it."