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Recipient of the 2020 Michael F. Dwyer Award for Historic Preservation from Montgomery Preservation.

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

In early 2019, I met Gwen Reese and Suzanne Johnson, great-granddaughters of the founders of Sugarland, a town established by former slaves immediately after emancipation in rural Montgomery County, Maryland. My new friends (and future co-authors) 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—but they weren't sure how to begin sharing it with a wider audience. After nearly two years of brainstorming and collaboration, a book took shape.

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—but the more we delved into their collection, the more I saw that Sugarland offers a story of far more than local interest.

All proceeds from I Have Started for Canaan will fund the upkeep of the historic Sugarland church, the preservation of their collection, and the creation of new resources for the public to understand and appreciate African American history. To purchase a copy of the book, please email me or visit the website of the Sugarland Ethno-History Project.

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