Black History Month: Archivist pieces together history of county’s black churches
EDINBURG – Ignoring segregation and racism in a discussion of black history, to Shenandoah County Library archivist Zach Hottel, is missing the point entirely.
Hottel recently zeroed in on the history of black churches in Shenandoah County as the center of African-American communities, and as the targets of local newspapers (for better and for worse), during a the library system’s third celebration of local stories in Black History Month.
Local newspapers, despite vocal editors with strong opinions on the African-American community in Shenandoah County, were an essential and central piece of Hottel’s research.
“The articles are really hard to use because you have to realize this is a white Confederate veteran who’s editing this newspaper,” Hottel said, adding that he had to “read between the lines” to separate the bias from the facts.
Not that Hottel ignores the bias, or erases the racism. In his presentation, he featured a newspaper clipping with a letter signed, “the colored population,” and the editor’s response, which Hottel diplomatically depicted as “not respectful or nice,” kicked off with ta derogatory term in the opening line.
The letter concerned an African-American man from Woodstock named Henry Johnson. He had done something that earned him scorn from the town’s white population, and in response, the black population ran him out of town.
In the letter, the author from the black community writes that Woodstock’s black population “(needs) to have good behavior among ourselves.” The editor’s response largely agreed, and Hottel summarized it as saying “the African-Americans in Woodstock are generally pretty good because they stay in their place.”
Hottel structured his presentation from north to south, exploring the history of churches in Strasburg down to New Market. Other than newspapers, which only sporadically reported on developments at black churches, he had to rely on scant fire records and other contemporary documents to learn the history of the small churches.
Records for the First Baptist Church in Mount Jackson were so meager that Hottel could only narrow down its founding date to somewhere between 1882 and 1930.
But he persisted, knowing how important churches are in telling the history of Shenandoah County’s black population.
“African-American churches really were the center of their communities. They were the one institution that a lot of African-Americans had in the time of segregation,” Hottel said. “Most community events that African-Americans put on in some way involved the church.”
He said this included sports, like baseball leagues; social groups, which held dances; entertainment, like bands and choirs performing concerts at the church; and schools, both in raising money for their construction and in donating land.
Every now and then Hottel would stumble upon a historical goldmine, like when he found an article from April 15, 1954, about a surprising new member of the congregation at Asbury Methodist Church in New Market.
“We did find one article that was really, actually pretty good … about a horse that they said went to church here,” Hottel said. “What they mean by ‘went to church here,’ there was a horse that was in this pasture that would stick his head in the window of Asbury during the service.
“It’s a funny article, but it is really good and it tells us a lot about the church in 1954. It says it was a white, clapboard structure with a bell frame … it seated about 100 people … the minister was W. E. Jefferson, who also preached in Mount Jackson and Woodstock.”
Other articles were more negative and less informative. There were multiple stories written about ghosts that haunted an African-American church in Woodstock, which black churchgoers perceived as making them sound superstitious and like “crazy people,” Hottel said, based on his research.
But Hottel said that black congregations were dependent on good press and the general goodwill of the county’s white population, because they rarely had enough money to fund their own operations. One pastor in the county was shared by three churches, and the individual congregations struggled to fundraise enough for a third of his salary.
This relationship was poignantly illustrated when the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Woodstock hosted a chicken and waffles benefit dinner to raise money from “the white folk.”
“Their church is approaching 70 years old here. Almost all of the white churches in Woodstock have been replaced in that time period. They’re trying to raise money to do the same, but they don’t have the economic influence, the jobs to do that, even though almost the entire African-American population is going to this one church,” Hottel said. “You can tell again this pattern of, the church community, they’re turning to the people in the community that actually have money.”
Hottel got the idea to focus this year’s presentation on churches after working closely with Norman Pye, 78, of Woodstock, after the first year’s program about racial integration.
Pye, who was baptized in the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Woodstock when he was 4 years old and is now a trustee of the 149-year-old institution, had come to Hottel to ask for help getting a historic marker for Mt. Zion.
The church itself isn’t owned by the community, but rather by the Virginia United Methodist Conference, and Pye said he fears that, since the congregation is dwindling, the conference will sell the church to another congregation.
“We’re trying to save our church and our history … and keep it going for another 149 years,” Pye said.
Hottel said he had thought about trying to do something on historical black churches before. “The fact that he (Pye) asked for that help, and, you know, we owed it to him, because he had helped us out on a lot of things — I said, well, this is what I’m going to do it on.”
Hottel initially revitalized the library’s Black History Month program in 2016 because he thought the history in Shenandoah County focused too much on the white, male side of history. He acknowledged that was an important piece of the story, but it missed the roles played by the Hispanic population, women, members of the LGBT community and other under-represented groups.
“Even for the history lover, a lot of times you’re siloed into specific narratives and things that leave you without a grasp of the full complexity of the historic picture,” Hottel said. “It takes something acting on you to get that bigger picture.”
Rather than painting that full picture and hanging it on display, Hottel said he wants to give the people of Shenandoah County the tools to discover it for themselves.
“We’ve got the dots, and we may not have the picture, but what I’m hoping is you see that and then you go out and try to get the whole picture,” he said.