Situated near the intersection of Howard Chapel and Elton Farm roads, east of the 19th century village of Unity, the small enclave of Howard Chapel owes much of its existence to a single man: Enoch George Howard. Born enslaved on the Griffith plantation near Unity, George Howard, as he was known, purchased his own freedom in 1851 from Sarah Griffith; two years later he would purchase his wife, Harriet’s freedom from Samuel Gaither. Harriet would purchase her four oldest children from Samuel R. Gaither in 1860.
The reunited family resided on the farm Howard had purchased from the estate of Beal Gaither, on land spreading west of the Patuxent River. Their home, a stone manor house called Locust Villa, was one of two houses owned by Howard near what would become the community of Howard Chapel.
Several sources relate how, in the 1850s, the Howard home provided lodging for the enslaved Dred Scott, who had come to Washington for a Supreme Court case involving Scott’s right to sue for his freedom. In 1857, the court would rule that Blacks—whether enslaved or free—were ineligible for citizenship and therefore unable to legally petition for their freedom in court.
At the same time, family histories tell how Howard assisted with runaway slaves headed northward. Sometime prior to Howard buying his family’s freedom, two of his sons reportedly escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad.
By 1870 Black farmers in the Howard Chapel area were producing hundreds of acres of rye and oats, along with corn, rice and barley. Nearly 70 percent of Howard’s land was under cultivation. Although unable to read or write, Howard was nonetheless a man of great business acumen, who added to his wealth over the years by buying and selling hundreds of acres of land in Montgomery and Howard counties and investing in stocks.
Following Emancipation, the Howards were joined by other Black families settling in the area, many of them related. By the 1870s enough families had gathered to warrant the construction of a new school for Black students, and in 1878 Howard would sell a tenth of an acre for its establishment. His daughter Maria was already a school teacher. In 1868, another of Howard’s daughters, Martha, married John H. Murphy; she would later provide $200 her husband needed to found Baltimore’s historic Afro-American newspaper.
In 1889, Howard would build a chapel near the school, with its attendant cemetery holding the graves of several Howard family members and descendants. The chapel served the rural Black community until its closure in 1930 and was destroyed by fire in 1979. Neither of the Howard houses remains standing.
Following Howard’s death in 1895 his property descended to his five children. Today, the Patuxent River State Park encompasses much of Howard’s land.