About 40 people turned out Saturday afternoon to unveil historic markers for a White Oak church with roots stretching back to the Civil Rights movement and a Civil War-torn country in the midst of rebuilding.
“The foundation he set is still here,” Bethlehem Primitive Baptist Church Rev. Gary Williams told the crowd after the dedication for the marker of a remaining corner of the original church’s stone foundation.
The stones lay in a bed of pebbles in a field next to the current church, on Chapel Green Road in Stafford County.
That foundation served as a cornerstone for a church established in 1868 during difficult post-Civil War times, especially in the south for African–Americans. It was 27 African–Americans who founded the church after splintering from another White Oak church. They picked a former slave to serve as the first leader, then 71-year-old Rev. York Johnson.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources approved the marker as part of the state’s historical roadside marker program. The county paid for the roadside sign. The church handled the bronze plaque for the foundation corner.
Rev. Williams on Saturday closed a ceremony that saw white doves fly into the blue afternoon sky, church members noted for their roles as teenagers integrating into Stafford County schools in the early 1960s and a deacon embodying the original church’s first reverend.
After some opening comments, singing and praying, Deacon Frank White, dressed in period garb, entered the church, walking between the two sets of wooden pews.
“Free at last, free at last,” the deacon’s voice rang out as he re-imagined what the Rev. Johnson might have told the original congregation when the church opened.
The war had ended, he said, and now they were free.
No longer did they have to sit in the back of church.
No longer did a white person have to be present while a black person prayed.
And now they could bury the dead with “dignity and respect,” he said.
He said they should celebrate their freedom.
But he noted that freedom comes with a duty and responsibility to establish a community and raise educated children, “assisting our people from the cradle to the grave.”
After the church was founded, Rev. York also started educational and benevolent programs. The church still uses the Union Branch of the True Vine the reverend established to raise money for scholarships.
Those things helped the church serve as the foundation for the community of the past as it does to this day, the deacon and others said during the ceremony.
He related how some current church members at Saturday’s ceremony were teenagers in the late 1950s and early ’60s. They were some of the first area African–Americans to go to the formerly all-white Stafford High School (now Drew Middle School).
According to a history compiled by the church, Bethlehem church member Rosie Mae White was the first African–American student to enter the school.
Colita Fairfax, with the Virginia Historical Resources, called the marker a “very significant moment” for Stafford. “We are so proud of this.”
She called the church a “socializing center” and “anchor” of the community, then and now.
Stafford County Supervisor Tom Coen told the gathering Bethlehem exemplifies “character and grit.”
“This church teaches people what to do and what’s right,” the supervisor said before leading the group in a verse of “Amazing Grace.”
After the ceremony inside the church, the roadside marker was unveiled outside, followed by a celebration marking the church’s cornerstone foundation.
There was a reading of the dedication on the bronze marker, approved by the National Register of Historic Places, followed by a handler setting free several white doves, which flew off and vanished beyond the trees.