In white robes, soaked with holy water from the Accotink Branch, 19th and 20th century black Americans in Fairfax were baptized in sacred outdoor ceremonies that the city now officially recognizes.
Historic Fairfax City Inc., the city’s historical society, unveiled two historic markers, Saturday, July 28. One marker, near the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Kenmore Drive, represents the baptismal area used by black members of the Mount Calvary Baptist Church — the city’s first black church, according to records — from around 1870 until the 1930s. The other marker, located in front of the Eleven Oaks School on School Street, represents the second black school ever built in Fairfax: the Rosenwald School. The structure no longer stands, but HFCI has made sure its memory remains.
HFCI worked hard to create the markers in time for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown. Karen Stevenson, HFCI’s president, said the process of creating the markers is almost as interesting as the history they represent. Local and state historians researched the history behind each marker to ensure accuracy, and the process is a long one, Stevenson said.
THE BAPTISM CEREMONIES were dramatic, sacred and joyous, much like scenes from the 1990s Coen Brothers film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Participants shouted prayer and praise of the Lord, and the physical experiences in the ceremonies looked almost overwhelming to the participants, according to witnesses.
Anne Rust Patteson, a white woman who lived atop a nearby hill, recalls seeing the ceremonies take place. She also remembers how she and her friends would watch from a distance, out of respect. Patteson used the creek as a swimming hole, but the baptisms turned it into a holy and sacred place.
"We knew it was a solemn occasion, and we stayed very quiet," wrote Patteson in a letter read by a relative and Historic Fairfax City Inc. board member, Jack Rust, at the historic marker ceremony. "I remember how brave the candidate looked, and I recall how joyful they were when they were raised back up [from the creek]."
The Mount Cavalry Church was actually located on Route 123, near Armstrong Street, north of the Accotink Branch where members were baptized, according to old maps. Members traveled down the hill because "this is where the water was," said Ed Trexler, an HFCI board member, historian and author.
"The hope [Mount Cavalry members] found was a miracle, in a place where they received no land, no grants, no subsidies," said Rev. Jeffery Johnson, of today’s Mount Cavalry Baptist Church, at 4325 Chain Bridge Road. "It allowed men and women, boys and girls, to become a part of the body of Christ."
The area where the baptisms took place is now overgrown with trees and bushes. Thousands of cars drive past it every day, and now the marker, which is visible from the road, can remind passersby of the area’s place in history. The nature of the baptisms — outside, dramatic and poignant — is what makes the area such a historical place, said Stevenson.
Johnson said the church is a haven of peace in Northern Virginia because of its rich history. It became a place where black residents could come together to praise God during the time shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation.
"The church has been an embassy of heaven on Earth, where the language of equality was first introduced to African-American slaves," said Johnson.
FAIRFAX ROSENWALD SCHOOL, 10515 School St., was built in 1925-26 to replace the loss of the city’s first black school, which was located at 10565 Main St., adjacent to the cemetery. That school, called the Fairfax Colored School, was built around the mid-1870s, according to research by William Page Johnson, an HFCI board member, historian and the city’s commissioner of the revenue. Page Johnson contributes heavily researched material to each of the HFCI’s quarterly newsletters. He wrote extensively about the Rosenwald School in the 2006 winter newsletter, in which Trexler also contributed a piece about the Accotink baptisms.
The Fairfax Colored School was torn down and the land was sold, in 1920. A small structure remained, with a single room and a single teacher who taught there, but the community outgrew the old school by 1925, according to Page Johnson’s research.
Etta Bowles Richards Strozier, a student at the first black Fairfax school, recalls her one-room school that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. Strozier, 91, attended the historic marker ceremony and said she could talk for hours about her memories of the school. She especially remembers the walk from her home near the intersection of today’s Roberts and Braddock roads. It was several miles through woods and fields, she said, but she always made it to school.
The Fairfax Colored School League formed to raise funds and petition the School Board for a new facility, which they later built and named the Fairfax Rosenwald School, according to Johnson’s research.
Mabel Payne Colbert, a student at Rosenwald, remembers that the school lacked plumbing or electricity. She also remembers that most of the children who attended were very poor. In a letter read at the ceremony, Colbert talks about the "guano sacks around our feet and legs to keep us warm and dry" during the winters.
"It was hard to learn when you were cold and hungry," said Colbert’s letter.
But they did learn, during a time shortly after whites tried to restrict the education of blacks. Before the Rosenwald School and the Fairfax Colored School, "everything done for African Education was done philanthropically," said Page Johnson.
Rosenwald existed from 1926-1953, when the Eleven Oaks School was built behind it. That school was one of the last segregated schools in the area during the racial integration of American schools, in the 1950s and 1960s, said Page Johnson.