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Honoring the Past with a Mission for the Future

Alfred Street Baptist Church celebrating 200 years of history and worship.

Alexandria will add a new historical marker to its landscape Nov. 2. But this marker, different from many others dotting the city, signifies not only a living historical site but one that is continuing to gain in vibrancy and human dedication.

At 10:30 a.m. that day, Alfred Street Baptist Church will unveil its Virginia State Highway historical marker at the corner of Duke and South Alfred streets. That event will kick off the final week of the church's 200th anniversary celebration.

Founded in 1803 as part of the integrated Alexandria Baptist Society, the church has grown from its original 12 members to more than 2,500 today. Slaves from Mount Vernon Plantation joined the fellowship in 1815. It is the oldest African-American congregation in Alexandria.

"We were conjoined with the Alexandria Baptist Society at the beginning because African Americans were not allowed to worship separately," said Patricia Wallace, chairperson, Bicentennial Celebration. "The Colored Baptist Society was formed in 1806. In 1823, while still conjoined with the Alexandria Baptist Society, which was white, the Colored Baptist Society was granted privilege for us to worship individually and hold separate services on Sunday."

THE ORIGINAL Alexandria Baptist Society has three churches today: Alfred Street Baptist Church (ASBC), 301 S. Alfred St.; First Baptist Church of Alexandria, 2932 King St.; and the Downtown Baptist Church, 212 S. Washington St. On May 4, ASBC and First Baptist Church held a joint worship service to culminate the latter's bicentennial celebration.

The property, which the original ASBC church still occupies, at the intersection of South Alfred and Wolfe streets, was first rented by the congregation at that time. It was purchased in 1842, according to Wallace. The building was erected in 1855.

Two other members of the Bicentennial Committee instrumental in gaining recognition by Virginia and documenting the church's history are Wallace's husband, Alton, who has served as the historian, and Thomas Howell, chair, Historical Marker Committee.

"Not only has this site been designated a historical landmark by Virginia, but it has also been submitted for consideration for the National Registry of Historical Sites," Alton Wallace said. The state made their determination based on research submitted by the church.

The Office of Historic Alexandria has now submitted data for national consideration, Howell pointed out. "It was done as part of a package encompassing several sites. If there are questions about any in the package, it slows the process for all," Howell said.

Alton Wallace has chronicled his historical research in a book titled, "I Once Was Young." Three thousand copies have been printed and will be distributed as part of the Bicentennial Sunday celebration, Nov. 9.

"A copy of the book, along with other artifacts, will be placed in a time capsule that day, to be opened in 2028 on the church's 225th anniversary," Alton Wallace said. Parishioners are submitting various items for inclusion in the capsule.

ONE OF THE MOST unusual aspects of ASBC is the longevity and depth of many members of its congregation. This fact is on display in the church's multipurpose room which contains pictures and histories of those families who have been members for 100 years or more.

Among the list are the Brooks and Quander families. The latter "is one of the oldest documented black families in America," with a history dating to 1684.

The Brooks family lineage began in 1866. Active in the church today are Nellie Brooks Quander; her husband, Deacon Welton Quander; and her great grandson, former U.S. Army Gen. Leo Austin Brooks and his wife, Naomi. One of their sons, Gen. Vincent Brooks, became a familiar face to all Americans as he provided daily televised national briefings during the Iraqi war. Gen. Leo A. Brooks Jr., another son, is also a member of ASBC.

Charles Henry Quander joined ASBC in 1860. One of his descendants, Juanita Quander Stanton, holds the honor of having the longest membership in the church, 72 years, and is the longest serving usher at age 90. Other current members include Charles Henry Quander's great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, and great- great-great-grandchildren.

This Saturday, a Bicentennial Prayer Breakfast will be held to honor not only the 100-year families but also those parishioners who have been members for 50 years or more. Other 100-plus-year families to be honored are Barlow/Butler; Burless; Butler/Thomas; Butler/Turner/Harris; Diggs/Carroll; Jackson; Lee; Prichett/Willis; Wair; Webster/Burke; and Whitmore/Ogden.

One of the most distinctive items on display, attesting to ASBC's long history of contributions to the national heritage, is a large, handmade quilt. It explains significant events on "leaves" attached to and scattered about a sturdy tree trunk. Surrounding this hand-stitched tree are 30 squares signifying the efforts of the 30 groups involved with the celebration. There have been 18 subcommittees working on the year-long event.

"I wanted to get as many people involved with this event as possible and to convey the history of the church in art," Wallace explained. "Each membership group was asked to develop a square that would become part of the quilt." Unveiled on Oct. 19, it is the creation of the Bicentennial Quilt Committee, chaired by Lynda Prioleau. It will be on display until the end of November.

OVER THE PAST two centuries, the church has had only seven ministers. Their hand-painted portraits, done by artist James Hinton in the 1980s, are also part of the exhibit. "We unveiled them one year at a time," Alton Wallace said.

The Rev. Warren Adkins served the longest, from 1920-63. That tenure has been followed by ASBC's present minister, John O. Peterson Sr. On Sept. 21, the church honored Peterson's "50 years of preaching," 40 of which have been at ASBC.

The church's third minister, the Rev. Samuel Madden, who served for 33 years, also enjoyed the distinction of being "one of less than 100 African American commissioned officers to serve in the U.S. Army during the Civil War." He accomplished that by writing a letter to President Abraham Lincoln in August 1864, applying for a commission as a chaplain, which was granted, Wallace noted. That letter is on display.

"The big transition to the new church started in 1980 and was finished in 1994," Alton Wallace said. "The real growth came when parishioners from Fort Washington, Md., began arriving. The church population jumped from somewhere in the high hundreds to over 2,000." The Wallaces, Howell, the choir director, and organist are all from Fort Washington, according to Alton Wallace.

In keeping with the theme of the anniversary, "Missions and Evangelism," a plastic card the size of a regular credit card has been given to each parishioner. On it is inscribed:

"A charge to evangelize. Go ye therefore and teach all nations. This card comes to you with a debt on it so you have to bring someone to Christ." Just above each person's embossed name is "Expiration Date: Eternity."

THE DECISION to choose "Missions and Evangelism" as the theme and to issue the cards was made because, "We wanted to have something that was lasting after it was all over," Patricia Wallace said. "Evangelizing does that."