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115 years of advancement: Charlottesville area honors NAACP Founders Day

It’s been three years since the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was taken down in Charlottesville.

It’s been seven years since a City Council vote to remove Charlottesville’s Confederate symbols incited protests and eventually a riot that left one woman dead.

It’s been 60 years since Albemarle County public schools were desegregated.

And it’s been 115 years since the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in New York.

And despite that organization’s age, and all that it has survived, its members say it remains the model and the leader of the racial equality movement in America.

This past Sunday, some of those local members celebrated Founders Day at Chapman Grove Baptist Church near Eastham in Albemarle County. Roughly 70 members of the Charlottesville-Albemarle chapter, of the church congregation and of the surrounding community attended. There was singing, speeches and 34 lifetime members of Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP Branch 7057 were recognized for their work.

“For this civil rights organization, it’s important to realize how it started and why it started,” Janette Martin, president of the chapter, told The Daily Progress. “Founders Day is a time to reflect upon where the organization has made progress and what we need to do to continue the work of our mission to achieve equity, political rights and social inclusion by advancing policies and procedures that expand human and civil rights, eliminate discrimination and to accelerate the well-being, education and economic security of Black people and all persons of color.”

One of the lifetime members recognized on Sunday was Lewis Johnson, one of the Albemarle 26, the first Black students to integrate the Albemarle school system. Johnson told The Daily Progress that America can do more to promote “unsung Black heroes” and protect its history, a shared history among people of different colors, from being whitewashed.

To that effect, Martin said that the NAACP does not just exist in the context of making history and fighting for civil rights at a national level. It also exists at the local level, helping people individually.

“It’s important to let the people know there’s somewhere you can go and have somebody listen to whatever your issues are,” said Martin. “We have somebody to talk to; not everybody can afford to go to an attorney or counselor, but we will be here to listen and help to direct them in a way to go.”

The ceremony Sunday began with the Chapman Grove choir singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the popular song written by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900 which has since been dubbed the “Black National Anthem.”

Originally, the day’s agenda called for Khaliah Ali, daughter of boxer and civil rights activist Muhammad Ali, to serve as the keynote speaker. However, Ali’s husband notified organizers late Saturday evening that she was “too ill to travel” and would not be able to attend, B.J. Santos, the chapter’s treasurer, told The Daily Progress.

So, Chapman Grove’s pastor, Xavier Jackson, stepped up to the podium Sunday to deliver a sermon on the importance of the NAACP, on how to overcome cynics and on how great things and great people can come from “small, strange and suspicious places” — people such as former President Barack Obama and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.

“I know, I am not Khaliah Ali,” joked Jackson at the start of his sermon.

Jackson spent the following 45 minutes reading passages from his well-worn Bible, drawing parallels between the life of Jesus and the lives of Black men and women in America, and calling on the congregation to stand and sing their praises.

It was perhaps not the speech that National Congressional Award recipient Ali would have delivered, but it was a fitting speech, given the strong roots that the Civil Rights Movement has in Black churches.

The very church where Jackson preached is a historically Black church, said Martin. It was originally built by Black members of the Eastham community who had no physical place to gather and worship. They built it once in 1900 and again in 1953 after the original white weatherboard structure burned to the ground.

Before Chapman Grove, there was the Charlottesville African Congregation, which first organized in 1864. The group completed construction on the First Colored Baptist Church of Charlottesville on the corner West Main Street and Seventh Street Southwest in 1883. The name was eventually changed to First Baptist Church, and it was granted a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Benjamin Bunn, who served as its longest tenured pastor from 1944 to 1980, also helped establish the Charlottesville branch of the NAACP in 1947 and played a key role helping to educate Black students during segregation and Massive Resistance, when Virginia defied federal orders to integrate schoolhouses.

The Albemarle chapter of the NAACP was also founded with the help of Black churches. When a Black World War II veteran Lewis Carter was struck and killed by a White motorist speeding through western Albemarle, individuals and congregations in Crozet gathered together and hired Richmond law firm Hill & Robinson. Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson were both Black lawyers born in Richmond who dedicated their careers to fighting Jim Crow laws and segregation. They worked alongside the Albemarle congregational coalition to help the Carter family win a settlement. By 1953, that coalition was granted its own NAACP charter.

The two neighboring branches in Charlottesville and Albemarle merged in July 2001 in order “to be more effective in working to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination,” according to its website.

It’s a familiar story that is mirrored at NAACP branches across the United States.

This history and the Founders Day programs that honor it are not just the worship of ashes, but rather the preservation of a fire, Martin said during her brief remarks Sunday. Educating the next generation is critical to carrying the Civil Rights Movement into the future, she said.

“We came in and took over for the elderly people, so hopefully they’ll be able to take over for us and keep it going,” said Martin. “That’s how it’s been going for 115 years, and if it goes the way it’s been planned, it’ll stick around for another 115.”


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