Black Church Witness to History

Black Church Witness to History

Over 120 years ago, a group of black Methodists, some former slaves, were led by Samuel Sharper to create a church in McLean that reflected their views. Through time the church grew to be a thriving cultural hub for the black congregation, then dwindled and finally fell into disrepair and was nearly forgotten.

Congregants overcame numerous obstacles in their fight to eke out a living in the then rural countryside. The church today stands as testimony to the role of the black community of that era.

In 1882 Samuel Sharper was authorized as a trustee of his congregation to collect funds to build the church that is now known as the Pleasant Grove Methodist Church, on Lewinsville Road. Sharper published an appeal that read, “We, the members of the M.E. [Methodist Episcopal] Church of Odricks Corner, have no house to worship in and only 39 members and desire to erect a house for the worship and glory of God and for the moral and religious training of our people. And WHEREAS, we are few and very poor, we do most humbly and earnestly appeal to our friends and the religious public to aid us in securing the above-named object. Any donations in money or otherwise will be thankfully received and faithfully applied.”

It took quite some time for the congregation to raise the $144 necessary to buy the one acre of land on which the church would be built. Volunteers from the community and the church labored for the next three years to erect the simple, frame, clapboard church.

Three years after Sharper’s death, the first service was held at the church in 1896.

ACCORDING TO GARY JEWETT, the president of the Friends of Pleasant Grove, the $144 was “way over market price. The congregation was black, and [the owners] didn’t want to sell to them.” For a time the church thrived and was the heartbeat of the black community, but time eventually eroded church membership.

The Friends of Pleasant Grove have restored the once dilapidated building and created a museum under the church dedicated to black history. Members of the group are currently attempting to compile a genealogy on the congregation to fill in gaps on what is known about the people who worshiped there at the turn of the century.

One intriguing question is on the origin of several of the congregants’ wives. The women came from Scotland and are listed as “mulatto” (term used to describe a person who has one black parent and one white parent).

The museum has several pictures of these women, along with other congregation members. “They were listed as mulatto, but if you look at the pictures, they don’t look like you would consider mulattos to look,” says Joan Jewett.

Records indicate there was a Scottish family by the name of Henderson whose members may have married into the church. “Whole families would marry each other,” said Joan Jewett.

According to Joan Lewis, a descendant of the church founders, Native Americans also helped build the church and married black congregation members. “Our family is quite mixed. We’ve got Indian, white and black,” said Lewis.

At one point in time, there was an Indian reservation in Tysons Corner, according to Lewis. Lewis has an elderly aunt by the name of Kazia, who was named in honor of one of the prominent Indians on the reservation and “who married a slave,” Lewis said.

Lewis attended the church as a child and said it was “the social center around here. The families would come for [religious] rallies. People would bring a potluck and stay all day.”

Economics apparently played a factor in the demise of the church. “They became such a small congregation that they couldn’t keep it going after a while. A lot of the blacks had moved into the city and sold their houses,” said Gary Jewett.

“A lot of them died out, and then the descendants moved away,” said Lewis. The descendants would have made a decent profit on the land they sold, since the area had been primarily used for agricultural purposes when the church was being built but evolved over the years to command high real-estate prices.

THE LAST SERVICE at Pleasant Grove was held in March 1968, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. The remaining members of Pleasant Grove merged with a congregation closer in to McLean and leased the building to another congregation.

The new congregation was also unable to support its membership, and the church soon fell into ruin. However, many descendants lived on Lewinsville Road for quite some time and in the end played a pivotal role in the church's rehabilitation.

The rich oral tradition of African-Americans has help establish who many of the parishioners were and the role they played at the church, according to Gary Jewett. Being able to speak with descendants, such as Lewis and her relatives, is enabling the Friends of Pleasant Grove to piece together the history of the church.

Frances Moore, an original group member and descendant of the Sharper family, was instrumental in saving the church from being completely destroyed, after an antiques dealer purchased the property under the guise of restoring it but instead began salvaging it for the tin wall coverings and stained glass windows.

Moore’s furnishings, derived from previous generations, now make up the living history museum at the church. Sharper and members of the congregation had “carting rights,” which allowed them to take away items that white people were throwing away.

“If you look at the stuff here [in the museum], it’s nice stuff but it’s all missing a little something. They never threw anything away and found a use for everything,” said Joan Jewett.

The contents of the basement museum reveal how the black families of that time lived and worked. One item on display, a handmade box belonging to W. Sanford Sharper, shows that he was a cobbler and a farrier and made baseballs. Other items highlight the tools necessary to farm the land — all of them crafted by hand and well-worn.

The Friends of Pleasant Grove want more residents, especially children, to be able to experience the black history of the area through the church and the museum. Unfortunately, budget cuts have slowed viewing by the elementary schools to a trickle.

“Not a lot has been written about black history in this area. I think we are the only museum dedicated to black history in the county. It’s a shame more people can’t see it,” Gary Jewett said.

“More should be known about these people and about the church. They actually had a very short time in this building, the way history goes,” said Mrs. Jewett.