From its earliest days, the Black church -- known as “the mighty Black church by the side of the road” -- has been a steadfast anchor for the African American community. It has been a sanctuary, a launching pad, an embodiment of culture and grace.
In Fauquier County, more than 30 historic Black churches have served their communities since Emancipation. Some of those roots extend into slavery. Freed worshipers left the churches of their masters during Reconstruction and formed new churches that centered on Black empowerment, freedom and spirituality.
“Despite the contrary world around it, the Black church has been the inspiration and the sustenance through the darkest times -- the hope for better in the present and beyond,” said Jacqueline Calhoun, a retired physicist whose maternal roots are in Waterloo, a community where one of Fauquier County’s historic Black churches has survived 130 years. “It is a legacy of surviving and thriving despite.”
Enslaved Africans forced to the Americas represented a range of spiritual beliefs and practices. Most were not Christian. Some practiced Islam. During The First Great Awakening revivals during the 1700s, there were large-scale African American conversions to evangelical religions. Additionally, many laws, enforced at the county level, policed enslaved and free Blacks up until Emancipation. One required all enslaved people to attend church. Often, they were forced to attend segregated services with their masters; requiring church attendance was believed to quell rebellions and resistance.
“White preachers on slave plantations interpreted the Bible in ways that rationalized slaveholding and white supremacy, thus supporting plantation owners who wanted to instill a kind of mental slavery,” said Corinna Moebius, a race scholar-activist and adjunct lecturer at Florida International University.
Nevertheless, African Americans created their own spaces for Black spirituality. Some convened secretly in “hush harbors'' -- natural spaces in the woods, hidden praise houses or by creeks. In these spaces, they combined their diverse African spiritual practices with Christianity, countering the everyday violence of white supremacy and enslavement. It was the “invisible institution” where Blacks could escape the gaze of the master and nurture their own beliefs.
“African-influenced spiritual practices were hidden in plain sight in communities of the enslaved,” said Moebius.
After Emancipation, many of the original “hush harbors” would become eventual sites of congregations. “One of the first things African Americans did post-slavery was build a church,” said Karen White, executive director of the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County. “These churches became the cornerstone of spirit, society and activism in Black communities.”
From the outset, African Americans used churches as spaces of solidarity, information gathering, preservation and resistance. It is a role that continues today, sustaining Black congregations through generations of systematic oppression, economic, political and social exclusion, and now, through the inequities of COVID-19.
“They were safe spaces to tap into the spirit-- how else could African Americans have survived all of the obstacles?” said Calhoun.
Like many of the 30-plus historic Black churches in Fauquier, Waterloo Baptist Church was an “invisible institution” long before it had a physical building. Members met on the property in the woods until the cornerstone was laid in 1895.
It was, indeed, a “church by the side of the road.”
Inside the Black Church
The centrality of family clans is evident at Waterloo Baptist, founded by the Bailey, Brooks and Smoot families in 1895. The church sits at the crossroads of Old Waterloo and Leeds Manor roads, on land purchased for $25 from James Ramey.
“During and after the Reconstruction era, Black families established kinship ties through the church that continue until today,” said Masonya Bennett, a cultural anthropologist who focuses on the African Diaspora at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Bennett said there is often a “mother” of the church, considered a pillar of the community. “In line with African spirituality, the highest-ranking members of the church sit closest to the pulpit, showing reverence for the elders and ancestors,” said Bennett. “Those closest to the ancestors, sit closest to the pulpit.”
Rachel Stevens is the current church clerk at Waterloo Baptist. Her grandmother was the church mother until she died at age 99 in 1974. Mary Frances Bailey Smoot, or “Mother Mary,” had lived in the community since the 1890s, and was central to the church and to everyday life in Waterloo. She often made vegetable soup for students at the church’s school. She was also a midwife, and was responsible for “laying people out,” preparing the deceased for burial.
Stevens’ mother, Rachel Bailey, was church clerk until her death in 1961. Now Rachel Stevens, her last living child, maintains the legacy. Rachel Stevens and her first cousin, Adeline Harris, both in their late 80s, split treasury responsibilities.
“There was never a time I was not a part of the church,” said Stevens, who also attended school at the church after her family moved in 1941 from nearby Turnbull to Waterloo, just southwest of Warrenton.
Fauquier County rented the church building to use as a school for grades one through seven from the 1900s to the mid-1950s. Since Black children were barred from attending county public schools, Black churches in the county provided education.
“On Friday evenings, the boys took the desks out of the sanctuary and stored them in the church shed, and pulled out the pews for Sunday-morning service, then vice versa on Monday mornings,” Stevens recalled. Her grandmother’s house was adjacent to the school and the well on her property was used for the church’s and the school’s needs.
Stevens, like so many of her ancestors and family members, became an official member when she was baptized in the Rappahannock River at age 16. Stevens still lives in the home built by her father, Joseph Smoot, a former deacon in the church.
Now, as then, summer revivals and reunions fill the parking lots of Fauquier’s Black churches. At Waterloo, “Homecoming” remains the third Sunday in July. Attendance is not as robust as during her childhood, said Stevens. Family members moved away during the Great Migration for economic and equal opportunities elsewhere. The church now has about 20 active members and a new pastor, the Rev. Lonnie L. Lloyd Sr.
Other challenges – beyond a reduced congregation -- remain. Stevens recalls that the church was vandalized twice -- once in 2017 and once in the early 2000s. Racial slurs were painted in black on the church's white cement walls.
Other Black churches in the region have endured racial violence, too. In 2012, the 140-year-old historic Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Gainesville was burned down by a white supremacist from Haymarket. The congregation is only now readying to reopen a rebuilt church.
Waterloo Baptist remains a gathering place for its community, but since March 2020, the church has reduced services to every fourth Sunday to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Tracing history in Fauquier
In her work as director of the Afro-American Historical Association, White uses the “powerful tools” of church minutes, membership rolls and other church documents to trace the legacy of Fauquier’s historic black churches from antebellum times to today.
Enslaved and free people of color maintained membership in churches like white members. They were required to show membership through baptism, conversion, or a letter from another church showing that the free or enslaved person was in good standing.
White’s research shows that Black members of Long Branch Baptist Church, founded in 1786 near The Plains, created both the First Baptist Church of The Plains and Mt. Nebo Baptist of Morgantown.
Six of the founding 15 members of Warrenton Baptist Church were African American and originally members of Broad Run Baptist Church. From Warrenton Baptist, two other Reconstruction-era churches were founded, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist of Warrenton and First Baptist of Warrenton.
Black members who once belonged to Thumb Run Primitive Baptist Church were dismissed with “letters of being in good standing” and started two churches in Hume, Mt. Morris Baptist and Trough Hill Baptist.
Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church of Upperville once held services outdoors on land by Panther’s Skin Creek, but in 1900 erected its first building.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Fauquier’s Black churches have relied on their historical networks to support each other. “Black Fauquier County is one large extended family, and the churches are a central part of that kinship,” said Christine Lewis, the first lady of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church of Upperville.
In Marshall, Mt. Nebo Baptist Church was closed throughout the pandemic until this past Easter sunrise. But church member Angela Davidson, grants administrator of the AAHA, said: “We are all kin, so the church continuously shared information, used word-of-mouth on COVID shots and pandemic guidelines.”
Lewis recalls that when her husband, the Rev. Phillip Lewis, became the pastor in 1990, the preacher of predominantly white Upperville Baptist, the Rev. Phillip DeLorme, left a note on his windshield suggesting “getting together.”
They did, and now for 30 years the two churches have come together for Thanksgiving to network with other Upperville churches and to raise money to distribute food baskets to needy families for Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day. For the first time, the churches were not able to gather together in person on Thanksgiving, but its members still delivered the baskets.
“For those members who were sheltered in and not able to attend the open-door services, trustees delivered CDs with the recorded services,” Lewis said. “And in March, the historic church began online streaming.”
The legacy of the Black church extends beyond community and county. Blacks aspiring to public office could draw on the oratorical skills, networks and leadership experience they gained in the Black church, said Moebius. Many Black political leaders during Reconstruction had been ministers during slavery or just after Emancipation. A century later, in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Black church played a key role as space of solidarity and resistance during the struggles for voting rights, desegregation and other civil rights.
The music of the Black church has also been the inspiration and source of some of the nation’s greatest singers. And as Calhoun, Steven’s niece, said, the Black church “supported the one-room schoolhouses during segregation all the way to the creation of historically Black colleges and universities.”
According to a 2014 Pew Research study, nearly 8 in 10 Black Americans identify as Christian. No other group more largely identifies as Christian in the United States.
Just before the Civil War, more than half of Fauquier’s population was Black – all but a few were enslaved. But beginning during Reconstruction, Fauquier’s Black residents were displaced or relocated, a process that continued through the Great Migration before and after World War II. Now, Black residents make up only 7% of Fauquier’s population.
Still, Fauquier’s Black churches remain an important nexus -- of past and present, of resilience and adaptation, of culture and dynamism. “It was African Americans that made Christianity their own and their creolized practices that made Christianity essentially American,” Bennet said.