Lost: Virginia Church Built by Freed Slaves
By Helenah Swedberg | Online Only | Feb. 5, 2009
After years of deterioration, a church built for emancipated slaves in Ivy, west of Charlottesville, Va., was demolished last month. An African American land owner donated the site and built the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in 1890 to house a local congregation of recently freed slaves.
The church's style was typical for the countryside, with a rectangular plan and a wood-frame construction. But the men who built the church added several unique features: a wooden hand, pointing to the sky, and wooden silhouettes of African faces with teardrops.
Over the years, the condition of the church had worsened drastically, and its members saved money to build a new church. Pastor Tracie Daniels said the walls of the old church were "bowing out" when she and the church members cleared the building before the demolition.
"It was ready to cave in; we stayed there on prayer," she says.
K. Edward Lay, professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of Virginia, documented the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in the 1980s. He describes it as a "very simple and humble building." Its strength lay in the symbolic details, which were like nothing he had seen.
"I definitely think they should have preserved it," Lay says. "It must have been very meaningful to the black population. I would assume that 50 years from now, in retrospect, this will be a big loss for the black community; it was part of their heritage."
According to Pastor Daniels, most people in the community supported the demolition. The building might have been saved 20 years ago if someone had come forward with funding, but Pastor Daniels said it would have cost "a ridiculous amount of money" to preserve the church now. "We could have built two new churches for that money," Pastor Daniels said. "We are a small congregation; we can't afford it."
The silhouette faces were removed from the church years before the demolition, and they will be on display in the new church, which is scheduled to be finished this summer. The same showcase will also feature the original steeple hand, which was replaced by a replica several years ago. If it is possible, Daniels says, the reproduced wooden hand will again be placed at the top of the new bell tower.
The congregation is focusing on the future, Daniels says. "We are looking forward to the new church."
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