The old church was burned to the point it was almost lost, and with it would have gone a century of history, stories and lives.
But Pleasant Grove still stands. A restoration project completed a few years ago resurrected the steeple that had nearly been lost in the fire no one can date, and Saturday the church served as a gathering place in celebration of the history of the African Americans who used to sing in praise and worship together under its peaked roof.
“This is the first time we’ve done this,” said Garry Jewett, president of the Friends of Pleasant Grove, of their open house in celebration of Black History Month.
“The church was built in 1895 and was an active Methodist Episcopal church for a while,” he said. “It was about to be torn down in 1982, but my wife and I and some descendants from the original church worked to save and restore the church.”
In the basement is the Frances K. Moore Memorial museum, a large room divided into four “rooms” filled with furniture and artifacts from the Sharp home, a yellow house that used it sit just north of the church.
“This was all brought from the house that belonged to the Sharp Family,” said Joan Jewett, Garry’s wife, while giving a short tour through the museum. “The house was there until recently. We got all the furniture out and into the church museum before [the house] was torn down,” she said.
Among the contents of the museum are old dressers, dolls, bowl and pitcher sets, books and hymnals from the old church.
“This old organ is original to the church, as well,” she said of a small instrument, its pedals worn from a century of use. “We had it restored, but no one knows how to play it other than the person who restored it,” she said with a small chuckle.
THE MUSEUM is named after Frances Moore, grandfather of one of the men who helped found Pleasant Grove Church.
Upstairs, carefully arranged on two portable walls, are 20 reproductions of charcoal drawings by Betty McDonald.
“This was an assignment given to me when I was working for the government,” she said. “They were done to go on bulletin boards during Black History Month. In the past year, I’ve started looking for a museum to take the originals. These are good Xerox copies for this display.”
The individuals she chose for her display — including Josephine Baker, Nefertiti, James Baldwin and Mary Elizabeth Bowser — were selected for their lack of recognition to a broader audience.
“There were so many great inventors who were African American,” she said. “The third rail of a trolley car, the one on top that’s always used, was invented by a black person. The first blood transfusion was done by a black doctor. There were not only great inventors but entertainers too.”
She doesn’t believe she has a favorite of her biographies and charcoal portraits.
“Mary Elizabeth Bowser was a spy during the Civil War… the first American spy ever was a black woman working as a cook in Thomas Jefferson’s house,” she said.
THE HIGHLIGHT OF the afternoon was an oral history, presented by Keziah Boston, a woman of Native and African American bloods, spoken with pride in her voice and a deep sense of purpose in telling her family’s story.
“The only time my father went to church was when my mother’s father was giving a revival service here one evening,” she said to Karen Washburn, a historian with Fairfax County’s Historical Society.
During that service, her father and his cousin would sneak sips out of a jug of moonshine, which would eventually lead the two men, completely inebriated, to coming across a long-haired, long-armed silvery creature they believed to be the devil.
“We never did find out what it was,” she said, “but he never drank during a service again.”
The bell in the tower, still in place, was a gift to the church from a great aunt. “She paid $100 for it when the church was built,” she said. The bell was rung prior to services, which were never held at night because the church was not electrified for most of its first 50 years.