There it is right along the edge of Centreville Road, just north of Floris Elementary School. Situated on a busy stretch of road, many Herndon residents drive by the little white plank wood church everyday. But how many know the history behind that Frying Pan Spring Meeting House or the role it played for people of color during the early days of Herndon?
"I doubt very many people do know what it is, let alone its significance," said Yvonne Johnson, a Fairfax County historian and unofficial caretaker of the meeting house.
Through education and tours, Johnson and others are trying to take the mystery out of the little white church in Herndon. Esther McCullough is one of those who is hoping to raise awareness of sites, like the meeting house, that played an important and historic role in the lives of African-Americans. McCullough, a commissioner for the Fairfax County Historical Society, helped spearhead a project that highlighted seven sites in Fairfax County chosen for their contributions to African-American history.
The Frying Pan Meeting House is one of the sites that McCullough and her group selected. "There aren't that many dwellings still standing in the county that have some sort of significance to our history," McCullough said. "It is a treasure for the very reason that so few buildings are left that our ancestors lived in and worshipped in."
According to Chuck Mauro, president of the Herndon Historical Society, there were very few, if any, similar churches in the area. "It was extremely unusual that blacks and whites met and did anything socially together," said Mauro, who is currently writing a book about the history of Herndon. "I don't know of any other church or any other activity except maybe on the farm where they were slaves or laborers and they certainly didn't meet socially. So this church was extremely rare."
In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were churches and buildings that allowed freed blacks and slaves to congregate in Fairfax County, according to historians. "What made Frying Pan so unique was that it was used by both races simultaneously during the same service," McCullough said. "This was a rallying point and a safe haven for blacks in this region."
<b>IN 1840</b>, there were 29 black members of the congregation and 33 whites, according to Johnson, the park historian. And according to county records, it was the only Baptist Church in Fairfax County in 1840. Blacks and whites were both baptized in the nearby Frying Pan Branch tributary.
McCullough said it is crucial for sites like the meeting house to be preserved. They should be used as teaching tools for our area school children, she said. "This site is particularly precious," she added. "It shows that men and women of all colors were allowed to exist in a friendly environment."
While the meeting house was an important gathering place for people of all races, it was not an utopian example of inter-racial harmony. "You'll notice that there are four doors to the building," said Johnson, on a recent tour of the Frying Pan landmark. "White men used one door, white women used another, black men used another and black women used the fourth door."
While the church had only one floor in 1820, a second floor was added soon thereafter. When the balcony was finished, blacks sat up top, Johnson said. When blacks began sitting upstairs, it was, according to Mauro, likely a result of a "hardening in the separation of races," reflected in the politics of the day.
It could have been a reflection on the prevailing social pressures of the day or it might have been the choice of the congregation, Johnson speculated. "The fact is, we just don't know."
A historian by trade, Johnson relishes the opportunity to bring school children into the meeting house. "We really want to create a connection to the church and to give this old building a real sense of meaning," she said.
The cemetery behind the church also reflects a cultural, if not racial, divide. While both blacks and whites were buried there; they were separately grouped and the graves of black members are unmarked to this day.
The white members of the congregation were largely part of the lower social economic strata, according to Johnson. "We don't know why this is exactly," she said, "but it could be that they were looked down upon by the big city urban dwellers. Perhaps, they felt more of a connection with the freed blacks."