By Kristen Coppock, BCT Staff Writer September 17, 2013 (Source: Burlington County Times)
A dark period in American history and a community’s inspirational efforts to overcome it are being brought to life with a large dose of levity through a public program aimed at people of all ages.
Known as a safe haven for those traveling along the Underground Railroad, Jacob’s Chapel in Mount Laurel is hosting a Living History Family Fun Day on Oct. 5, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free to attend, it combines education about the enslavement of black citizens and efforts to end the practice with entertainment and child-friendly activities.
The chapel on Elbo Lane will welcome visitors inside and on its grounds with complementary tours led by an actor portraying an Underground Railroad conductor.
A period sermon will take place in the sanctuary, and visitors will witness the staged capture of a woman who previously escaped enslavement. Performers are aiming to give the public a real sense of the kind of experience that some blacks were forced to endure.
“This was an original stop on the Underground Railroad. We want to tell this story,” said the Rev. Terrell Person.
In the graveyard behind the house of worship, performers will relate tales of the mid-1800s period, portraying two people who are buried in the church’s cemetery, including a Civil War-era Army corporal, and Dr. James Still, the famed Black Doctor of the Pines and Person’s great-grandfather.
In addition, visitors can witness a staged Civil War encampment, featuring the 6th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops from Trenton.
“People will really be transported to a different time while they’re here,” said Julie Williamson, head of the event’s organizing committee.
Meanwhile, activities designed for fun will be provided through Jacobs Chapel at nearby Fellowship Community Church on Hainesport-Mount Laurel Road. Complementary buses will run every 30 minutes between the two properties, shuttling visitors back and forth.
At Fellowship Community Church, visitors will be treated to performances by the Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble, video presentations, period crafts and a historical exhibit, according to Williamson. While there is no cost to attend, nominal fees will be charged for food, pony rides, face painting and carnival-type games. Books and DVDs related to Jacob’s Chapel and its congregation also will be available for purchase.
Williamson said the four-hour program is intended to increase public knowledge about Jacob’s Chapel and to further educate people about its history.
“So few people know that it’s here and know what it is,” she said. “We would love it if the entire region came.”
Organizers also are hoping to generate public support for the preservation and restoration of the working chapel and two other buildings on the property, including a former one-room schoolhouse that once served children in the local black community. Major repairs are needed to stabilize some deteriorating parts of the structures, including the old classroom’s sinking floorboards and a door that doesn’t fully open.
“The ultimate goal is to have people join us on the journey of preserving this location,” said Williamson.
The congregation also is hoping to build a modern church on its property to better accommodate current members and the many guests who attend Sunday sermons. Person noted the historic chapel’s small size and the configuration of its interior, which is cramped and does not provide space for a center aisle.
“People can’t make a break when I get too loud,” he said with a laugh. “They feel trapped.”
According to Person, chapel leaders would like to create a museum in the historic building once it is no longer being used for regular congregation activities. It would open to the public on weekends, showcasing its role in the Underground Railroad and the local black community, as well as highlighting the mutually supportive relationships it has traditionally had with other residents and organizations in the area.
“It’s a great story of hope,” he said. “There were a lot of people working together for the better of the community.”
Organizers of the Living History Family Fun Day said the event’s sponsors include Holman Enterprises, which has multiple automotive dealerships in Mount Laurel and Maple Shade, and Dan Higgins Flooring in Medford and Sicklerville. Williamson and Person said they are seeking additional partners, and hope to make the program an annual event.