A parcel of land near the corner of Hunter Mill Road and Sunrise Valley Drive, now occupied by a small, cinderblock church, has served as a place of worship for the vicinity's black families for some 143 years. At the church's anniversary celebration Sunday afternoon, congregants, neighbors and a delegation of local officials also celebrated the site's designation by the Fairfax County History Commission as an official historic site.
Cartersville Baptist Church "has provided a venue by which African Americans have been able to maintain a sense of culture and dignity in spite of otherwise being treated like second-class citizens," Thomas Wooden Sr., whose ancestors were founding members of the church, told the crowd.
Speakers alluded to the long history of the church, including the donation of the land on which it sits by Rose Carter in 1903 — long after residents had been meeting on the premises — and the fact that it has served as a place of refuge for the same families, generation after generation.
Officials also tried to put the church's long history into perspective. State Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) pointed out that the Civil War was just beginning to turn in 1863 and noted that the church "has been a religious, cultural and social fixture in this community" since that time.
Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Gerry Connolly noted that the church was founded in the same year that the Battle of Gettysburg was fought and the Emancipation Proclamation signed.
Of all the historic sites on Hunter Mill Road, "Cartersville Baptist Church, in my mind, is the most important," said state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34), explaining that many of the 52 sites along the corridor were important in their day, while Cartersville continues to be a center of activity in the community.
Connolly and Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) presented the church with a resolution from the Board of Supervisors declaring June 11, 2006 to be Cartersville Baptist Church Day in Fairfax County, and Del. Kenneth Plum (D-36) presented a certificate of commendation from the Virginia General Assembly.
Devolites Davis also thanked the Hunter Mill Defense League for nominating the site for historic designation and for doing the research to back the nomination.
ONE OF THE DEFENSE League members responsible for a major portion of the research is Jody Bennett. What they were able to verify, said Bennett, was that in 1863, several black families in the area began meeting for worship at homes in the area of the present-day church, on land that had been purchased in 1846 by a free black woman named Bethia Fairfax. By the time that Rose Carter, one of Fairfax’s children, donated a small parcel of land to be used by the congregation, a one-room building already sat on it and was being used as a church. The earliest documentation of the building also being used as a schoolhouse dates from 1927, although church elders say it was a place of learning prior to that.
The church’s founders came from two small hamlets — Cartersville, which occupied the land around the church, and Woodentown, near the intersection of Crowell and Browns Mill roads.
Cartersville Baptist was rebuilt in 1951 after it was partially burnt and was rebuilt again in the 1970s after burning to the ground.
Bennett said it took about six months for the Defense League and the Fairfax County History commission to agree on the exact wording of the marker. “They wanted it to say 1903, and we just weren’t accepting that,” she said noting that it is the site — not the actual church — that is considered historic. The current church building, aside from the foundation, is only about 37 years old.
“When I first started going there, it was a wood-frame church,” said Barbara Reed, formerly Barbara Wooden, who has been attending the church since she was a little girl around 1940. “It looked nothing like it is now.” She recalled that the original church was smaller than the current building, with coal oil lamps for light, a potbelly stove for heat and bathrooms outside.
When she was 4, Reed moved with her mother from D.C. to Woodentown, where her mother had grown up and had been schooled in the church. The little hamlet consisted of about a half-dozen families at the time and was surrounded by farmland, she said. She remembered that where the nearby Dulles Toll Road interchange now sits, there was a spring where her family would get water on the way to church.
Reed also recalled that in those days, the church had a “moaners’ bench,” a pew at the front of the church where those who wished to be baptized sat and moaned during services until the Holy Spirit took hold of them. “Deacons had to know that God was really into you and you were really into Him before you were dipped into that water,” she said.
The dipping was into Difficult Run, near the one-lane bridge on Hunter Mill Road, on the first Sunday of every December. Reed and several others took that plunge on Dec. 7, 1947, she said, “and no one caught a cold.” Once baptized, everyone had a job at the church. Which is not to say they did not also have fun — she recalled Sunday school trips to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania.
Reed also recalled that after the second burning of the church, when she was older, the fire department told church leaders the fire was “of suspicious origins.” However, she said, the surrounding community helped the congregation to rebuild. “The Lord saw fit for us to stay there,” she said.
The Cartersville congregation is now trying to scrape up funds for some modest expansions. Reed said churchgoers would like to add a small vestibule at the front of the church and expand the little room behind the pulpit so the minister can entertain guests there. They would also like to move the side wall out far enough to make the stairs to the basement accessible from the inside of the building and to move the bathrooms to the basement rather than having them situated on either side of the pulpit.
To raise money, they bring in guest ministers or choirs from other churches or hold picnics and pass the plate at such events.
ALTHOUGH THE NEW historic designation affords the Cartersville site little legal protection, Bennett said she hopes it will encourage the public to recognize the value of preserving the property.
Protecting Cartersville Baptist “gives us the opportunity to at least have something for future generations of color, so that they have a legacy,” said Wooden, who had traveled back from Pennsylvania for the ceremony. “They have something to come back to, at least, to say, ‘My forefathers and foremothers started out here.’”
He said the church represents the struggle for survival that his ancestors overcame. “If you know anything about Virginia, you know they weren’t supposed to survive,” he said.