CULPEPER — Orange County dignitaries and religious leaders will take time Saturday to dedicate a new state roadside marker commemorating the heritage of Little Zion Baptist Church.
The Virginia Board of Historic Resources approved the historical marker for the African American church, which was founded about 1870, soon after the end of the American Civil War.
In that period, many of the church’s early members lived in Goffney Town, Little Egypt and Little Zion, communities of freed people in the vicinity, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Little Zion’s congregation first met in members’ houses, then worshiped beneath a brush arbor before worshippers built a frame sanctuary on land donated by the Rev. Allen Banks, the church’s second pastor, the department said.
During Reconstruction, African Americans throughout Virginia and across the South created countless churches as they broke away from the white churches where they had worshipped during slavery. Many of their church buildings have disappeared from the landscape today.
“Likely, there were at least as many Reconstruction-era churches as there were communities established by freed persons,” Lena Sweeten McDonald, the Historic Resources Department’s national and state register historian, told the Culpeper Star-Exponent.
“Some places, like Pine Grove in rural Cumberland County, had two or three churches. Urban areas would’ve had even more,” McDonald said. “My experience is that the most popular denominations were African Methodist Episcopal and Baptist, but there were plenty of examples of others, too, such as Primitive Baptist and Methodist.”
“Establishing churches, schools and cemeteries were top priorities for emancipated African Americans, regardless of where they lived,” she said.
Little Zion’s congregation has used a new sanctuary, a third of a mile north of the old church, since 2001.
At 11 a.m. Saturday, the church’s congregation will hold a dedication ceremony at the marker’s site beside the church at 15116 Tomahawk Creek Road, just south of the town of Orange. Attendees must observe COVID-19 safety measures, wearing masks and observing social distancing.
Saturday’s speakers will include the Rev. John E. Reid Sr., the church’s pastor; the Rev. Marion F. Wilkerson; Jim White of the Orange County Board of Supervisors; Orange Mayor Martha Roby; the Rev. Dr. Halliard Brown, Little Zion’s associate pastor; and the Rev. Marvin Tice, associate minister.
Records kept by the church show that Little Zion’s core was a small house built of wide boards in 1870. The members broke away from Zion Baptist Church, which was established in 1813 at the forks of Mallory Ford Road, not far from Little Zion Baptist Church, a church history states.
Between the Civil War and 1870, church membership in that vicinity was interracial. Blacks and whites entered the church building through separate doors. Seating was also separated by race.
Dr. Jennifer Loux, the Historic Resources Department’s marker program historian and manager, said that across the commonwealth “substantially more more than a dozen” state markers commemorate African American churches from the period.
“I don’t think there’s any way to know how many Black churches were established during the Reconstruction era in Virginia,” Loux said. “I think ‘hundreds’ is likely. Not all of them have survived to the present day, of course.”
Last October, Little Zion’s members celebrated the church’s 150th anniversary.
“God has brought us from a humble beginning,” the 150th anniversary church program states. “Let us remain forever humble and never cease to thank and give God the praise from Whom all blessings flow.”
“Little Zion Baptist Church stands as a beacon to all who come within its portals; may it continue to carry on in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. With Christ as our chief cornerstone, we stand fast.”
In June 2020, the Virginia Board of Historic Resources approved Little Zion’s metal, silver-and-black marker for manufacture and installation. State law gives the board the authority to designate new state historical markers. The sponsor, which was the church itself, covered the costs of manufacturing the marker, VDHR said.
Virginia’s historical highway-marker program began in 1927 with the installation of the first signs along U.S. 1. It is considered the nation’s oldest such program.
Currently, Virginia boasts more than 2,600 official state markers, most maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation, and by local partners in localities outside of VDOT’s authority.