In the days when freedom was a dream and owning land was impossible, the slaves owned by William Beckwith were years ahead of their brethren.
When Beckwith died in 1863, he left 200 acres of land to the slaves he freed upon his death. In 1869, those freed men and women came together to create the Primitive Baptist Church, the first African American church in Fairfax County.
“The history of the Primitive Baptist Church goes along with the history of Clifton,” said Rev. Lorenzo Vaughan, pastor at the Cub Run Baptist Church, which owns Primitive Baptist.
“The first elder at the church was John Belle,” said Lynne Garvey Wark, immediate past chair of the Fairfax County Historical Society. “This church is one of our pride and joys in the county.”
Maintenance for the church, which is currently under the ownership of the Cub Run Primitive Baptist Church, is handled by the Clifton Betterment Association, an organization dedicated to preserving the historic nature of Clifton, Garvey Wark said.
The last regular worship service took place at the Primitive Baptist Church in 1957, said Joan Tyson, president of the Clifton Betterment Association. In the years that followed, lack of use and general wear on the building left it in a state of disrepair.
“The church was about to fall apart about 15 years ago,” Tyson said. “The Clifton Betterment Association offered to renovate the church for the congregation at Cub Run so it would remain a historic site.”
Many of the homes that line Main Street in Clifton, each adorned with a historic marker telling the home’s place in Clifton’s history, had already been restored, Tyson said, which only encouraged the repair to the church to be completed.
“When I first saw the building, it was the only site that hadn’t been fixed,” said Tyson’s husband, Rae Tyson, who spearheaded the effort to repair the church. “Once I met with the pastor at Cub Run, I realized how important the church was the to black community in Northern Virginia. That gave me one more reason to want to save it.”
After receiving a $15,000 grant secured by Sen. Jay O’Brien (R-39), Rae Tyson was ready to get to work.
“When they removed the interior paneling, there was horsehair insulation inside the walls,” Joan Tyson said.
THE ORIGINAL INSULATION was just one of many treasures tucked away in the church, which also had a large bath tub toward the back of the small, single-room building, that had been used for baptisms, she said.
On the outside, “the building looked pretty rough,” Rae Tyson said. “It had suffered some neglect and age and water damage, but the interior was in tact and all the original pews were there.”
After years of hard work, the building was restored. “It looked like such a treasure,” he said.
When the restored church was presented to Rev. Lorenzo Vaughan of the Cub Run Primitive Baptist Church and relatives and surviving members of the original congregation, all were impressed with the transformation.
“We got such great help from the commonwealth and a lot of volunteers in Clifton that gave their time and in-kind donations,” Rae Tyson said. “We also enlisted the help of a historical architect to be sure the renovations were accurate to the way the church originally looked.”
The Primitive Baptist Church is still opened for weddings and the occasional worship service, he said. Simple, straightforward design and the lack of anything that could be seen as a distraction made the church an “austere” place of worship.
“This church was built in keeping with the religious beliefs of the time, which is why it’s a fairly simple structure,” Rae Tyson said.