SPIRITUAL LIFE

Congregation at Little Zion Baptist Church

The congregation at Little Zion Baptist Church, Grove, Williamsburg, Va., circa late 1940s-early 1950s. Front row seated, from left to right: Harold Radcliffe, John Reid Sr., Nathaniel Reed Sr., James Davis, and Lee Robinson. The man standing has not been identified. Photo by Albert W. Durant.

               Churches offered African Americans in Williamsburg a sense of community, stability, and support in the midst of some of the hardships of living in an era of segregation. [1] Albert Durant’s photographs capture the membership, leadership, religious rituals, musical expression, and social and civic activities of local African American congregations. Furthermore, Durant documented churches that survived relocation in the twentieth century. While the buildings provide a sense of physical location, the scenes of baptisms, pageants, musicians, and community engagement bring these historical congregations to life.

                Durant recorded many different church rituals with his camera. In the first photo on this page, a congregation prepares for communion at Little Zion Baptist Church in Grove, Virginia, and sits solemnly, waiting for the minister to uncover the sacraments. Grove, a community located to the east of Williamsburg on U.S. Route 60, grew in size and importance after the federal government displaced York County residents in two separate episodes: first, in 1918, to establish a navy mine depot (now the Naval Weapons Station Yorktown), and then in 1942, to create Camp Peary, a Navy Seabee training base in World War II (currently a military intelligence training center). When Little Zion Baptist Church moved in 1918 from the vicinity of Yorktown to Grove, it offered a haven for displaced families and helped strengthen their faith to meet the changes and challenges they faced.[2]       


 

 

Preaching Before a Congregation

A minister preaching in an unidentified church, possibly in the Williamsburg area, Va., circa late 1940s-early 1950s. Photo by Albert W. Durant.

              In another photo by Durant, a minister proclaims a benediction over participants in an unidentified church.  The church interior appears somewhat unfinished, and a ladder propped against the wall indicates that possible construction or renovation work was in progress at the time the photo was taken. Many smaller African American churches met in modest settings yet still managed to have a dynamic impact upon their congregations. According to local historian Rex Ellis, “The black church has historically been the organizer, leader, conscience, and representative of the community.”[3]


 

 

Young Women Prior to Baptism

Young women about to be baptized in a river, with church member witnesses, Williamsburg area, circa late 1940s - early 1950s. Photo by Albert W. Durant.

                Durant’s camera witnessed baptism via full immersion, an important symbolic moment. The Durant collection encompasses numerous scenes of young men and women dressed in white robes and headdresses gathered by rivers for the sacrament of baptism. Members of the congregation stand alongside them as witnesses and spiritual supporters. Some of Durant’s photos also capture the life-changing moment of a baptismal candidate being lowered or raised from the water by a minister or deacon. Due to the private nature of these experiences, the photos of baptismal immersion are not shared online. However, they are available to view in person at the Rockefeller Library and offer a powerful testimony of each individual’s step towards developing a strong faith. 

Baptism at River

Baptism at a river (possibly the James River at Gospel Spreading Church Farm Park), First Baptist Church, Williamsburg, Va., circa late 1940s-1950s. Photo by Albert W. Durant.

               When Durant took this photo of First Baptist Church members witnessing baptismal ceremonies from the edge of a river, the church building itself may still have been situated in its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century location (in what is now Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area). First Baptist Church has a long and distinguished history. The congregation originated in the late eighteenth century when a group of African Americans who had worshipped near Green Spring Plantation formally organized into a Baptist church under the guidance of Reverend Gowan Pamphlet.  In 1856, the African Baptist Church moved from its early nineteenth-century location in Williamsburg into a brick sanctuary on Nassau Street between Duke of Gloucester and Francis streets. This structure housed the group until 1956, when the church, now known as First Baptist Church, relocated to its present site on Scotland Street to accommodate Colonial Williamsburg’s plans to expand the museum’s boundaries.[4]


 

Senior Missionary Society, First Baptist Church

Senior Missionary Society, First Baptist Church, Williamsburg, Virginia. Front row, left to right (seated): Mrs. Bessie Durant, Mrs. Edna Whiting (President), Mrs. Mattie Braxton, Mrs. Alice Morning. Back row, left to right (standing): Mrs. Mamie Cooke, Mrs. Daisy Hornsby, Mrs. Elizabeth Smith, and Mrs. Otelia Jones. Absent from photo: Mrs. Eliza Jackson, Mrs. Helen Westfield, and Miss Mamie Epps. (Caption source: Souvenir Program. Dedication Services and 180th Anniversary of First Baptist Church, Williamsburg, Virginia [Oct. 7-28, 1956], p. 15). Photo by Albert W. Durant.

               First Baptist Church’s new location on Scotland Street was in the heart of an African American residential and business area, of which the Prince George Triangle Building was also a part (see Local Businesses section). Durant’s mother, Mrs. Bessie Durant, lived with Durant down Scotland Street near Braxton Court, a housing development created by an African American builder. She appears in a photo displayed here of the Senior Missionary Society at First Baptist Church. This group, shown with their president, Mrs. Edna Whiting, had the distinction of including some of the oldest members of the congregation.[5]

                Women’s missionary circles played a significant role in Williamsburg’s African American community. They addressed local, national, and international needs for food, clothing, medical care, and spiritual support. At their meetings, they planned fundraisers for various causes, sought ways to provide direct benevolent aid to church members, and organized church social events to encourage fellowship.


 

Well-Baby Contest

Well-baby contest at St. John Baptist Church, Williamsburg, Va. 1948. Back row: Mr. Robert, Helen Roberts, Alise Stephens, Lula Lee. Middle row: Frances White, Mrs. Reed, Alma Lee Colley with baby “Sugarplum,” Edna Dillard Tabb with baby Yvonne. Front row: Beatrice White, Margaret Randall, Marion Kelly, Martha Morton. Photo by Albert W. Durant.

               African American churches viewed their role as one that moved beyond helping worshippers to experience God’s presence and find spiritual healing. Churches sought to educate their members about government, including voting and public officeholding.[6] Church leaders' encouragement of family values gave them a broad sphere of influence in the community, too. Whether or not individuals had strong religious beliefs, they did appreciate the financial and emotional support that congregations offered. Baby contests provided mothers with an opportunity to raise money for their church’s benevolence fund and missionary projects. Young mothers signed up their babies and then competed to see who could raise the most money through bake sales, yard sales, and other activities. Whichever mother collected the most money had the honor of seeing her child named the winner of the baby contest.  St. John Baptist Church in Williamsburg held such competitions regularly and asked Durant to document the participating mothers and babies in this group photo taken in 1948.


 

Easter Pogram at Mount Ararat Baptist Church

Easter program at Mount Ararat Baptist church, Williamsburg, Va., with Wilson King at the organ, circa 1950s. Photo by Albert W. Durant.

                In the last photo on this page, Durant captured the pageantry of an Easter drama in the sanctuary of Mount Ararat Baptist Church in the 1950s. Girls assembled in a formation portray angels while a choir and an organist watch from above. The beautifully appointed worship space—with carved wood accents, a choir loft, and organ—contrasts with the more humble gathering depicted in the photos of Little Zion Baptist Church and the unidentified church shown above.

                 Like First Baptist Church, Mount Ararat Baptist Church has historically been a spiritual home for residents in the vicinity of what is now Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. Founded in 1882, the original wood frame church stood on the south side of Francis Street across from Wetherburn’s Tavern. The congregation agreed to relocate to accommodate Colonial Williamsburg’s plans to restore the colonial town, and, in 1932, Mount Ararat moved to a new site on Franklin Street directly behind James City County Training School.[7] (See Recreation and Education sections.) Members of the church still gather to worship today amidst a cluster of administrative and maintenance buildings for Colonial Williamsburg.

                The range of spiritual venues and experiences captured by Durant’s photos attests to the enduring role that the church played in the lives of Williamsburg’s African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s. As one historian has noted, “in the black religious community ‘fellowship’ is a verb,”[8] and this is fully evident in Durant’s photos, which document a variety of fellowship activities ranging from solemn baptisms to joyful pageants. In their church activities, African Americans are coming together to accomplish important things for their immediate families, communities, and the broader missionary field.


 

 

[1] Linda Rowe, “African Americans in Williamsburg,” in Williamsburg, Virginia: A City Before the State, ed. Robert P. MacCubbin (Williamsburg, Va.: City of Williamsburg, 2000), 127.

[2] Will Molineaux, “A Busy and Purposeful Place,” in Williamsburg, Virginia: A City Before the State, ed.  Robert P. MacCubbin (Williamsburg, Va.: City of Williamsburg, 2000), 194; Bradley M. McDonald, Kenneth E. Stuck, and Kathleen J. Bragdon, “Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are: An Ethnohistorical Study of the African-American Community on the Lands of the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, 1865-1918,” William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research (Williamsburg, Va., 1992), 39.

[3] Rex M. Ellis, “The African American Community,” in Williamsburg, Virginia: A City Before the State, ed. Robert P. MacCubbin (Williamsburg, Va.: City of Williamsburg, 2000), 241.

[4] John Turner, “Three Hundred Years of Faith,” in Williamsburg, Virginia: A City Before the State, edited by Robert P. MacCubbin (Williamsburg, Va.: City of Williamsburg, 2000), 110, 112, 113; First Baptist Church, “A Resume of Our History from 1776 to the Present,” Souvenir Program: Dedication Services and 180th Anniversary of First Baptist Church, Williamsburg, Virginia (Williamsburg, Va: First Baptist Church, 1956), 3; Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, “Gowan Pamphlet,” accessed 3 June 2014, http://www.history.org/almanack/people/bios/biopam.cfm

[5]Hill’s Williamsburg (James City County, Virginia) City Directory, 1957 (Richmond, Va.: Hill Directory Company, Inc., 1957), 143.

[6]First Baptist Church, “A Resume of Our History from 1776 to the Present,” 4.

[7]Turner, “Three Hundred Years of Faith,” 116.

[8]Ellis, “The African American Community,” 237.