Bernice Lee noted that the members, some of whose families have worshipped there for three or four generations, support each other in times of misfortune as well as good times. The Roberts congregation knows one another, and they know their history.
“I think it makes [us] feel good to belong to a church that’s been here all these years, through wars, through racism,” Allen Ware said.
The route to a 180-year anniversary, which the church celebrates this week, was not an easy one. The congregation had been worshipping together since 1791, in the side galleries of the old Trinity Church on South Washington Street and, later, in an schoolhouse called Old Zion, according to the church’s official history. The history does not record the sermons that must have been preached when the U.S. Congress barred the transatlantic slave trade in 1808. For those in the pews, however, little changed: Slavery continued until emancipation came in 1865.
Both slaves and freedmen nevertheless created their own freedom to worship. Not far away, in the neighborhood known as the Bottoms, the congregation that would become the Alfred Street Baptist Church had formed in 1818. Other African American congregations were being founded as well in other parts of the District of Columbia (of which Alexandria was a part until 1847), and in Petersburg, Va., and Philadelphia.
But in 1830, the black Alexandria Methodists put together $200 to buy two lots — property they later were forced to sell because of objections from white neighbors. A slave in southern Virginia, Nat Turner, soon led a rebellion in which scores of whites were killed, and the Virginia General Assembly quickly restricted blacks from gathering in groups of more than four or five, or holding religious meetings without the presence of a licensed white minister.
The Methodists persevered. Finally, with $350, they bought land along the 600 block of South Washington Street and erected a handsome brick church. It was called the Charles A. Davis Chapel, in honor of its pastor, one of its largest fundraisers. A choir was formed in 1834, and a pipe organ was purchased and installed in 1896. It remains there today and is periodically played.
When the Methodist Episcopal Church split into two over slavery in the 1840s, Rev. Davis sided with the Southern faction, “much to the chagrin of parishioners,” according to church history.
The parishioners changed the name of their church to Roberts Chapel, after a pastor from their old Trinity Church, and moved forward. At one point, the church had 700 members, some arriving by boat from Maryland.
On April 6, 1897, the church welcomed educator and author Booker T. Washington who spoke for an hour, praising the establishment of the John Hay Industrial School, a segregated vocational training school. “He gave his race some excellent advice, advising them to work and not waste their time trying to secure offices,” said an article from the Alexandria Gazette.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the church remodeled and expanded, acquiring a parish house and parsonage, and in the early 1920s an old shoe factory that was used for community activities. The Depression forced the church to sell that building, and it’s now Demaine Funeral Home. During the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, Roberts Memorial became one of the many black churches that hosted, sheltered and fed the protesters who came to the area.
“It was a common practice,” said Audrey Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum. “They would provide shelter and connections, food if you were traveling. You can see parallels with what happened during the Obama [presidential] inauguration in 2009. . . . When churches couldn’t provide, many church members were very gracious in taking [visitors] into their homes.”
The church retains the side walls, window openings and brick cornices from the original 1832 structure. Inside, the pipe organ dominates the front wall, a polished wood railing surrounds the chancel, and a balcony looks down on the pews in the nave.
The Rev. Jan Prentace, the great-granddaughter of slaves, arrived three months ago and, members say, has brought with her new energy to an aging but vibrant church family. Prentace said she sees herself as a bridge between those who built the church and those who’d like to join, whether black, white or otherwise.
“My dream is, we’ll welcome all nationalities,” she said. The church already has worshipers from Britain, Kenya, Liberia and Ghana among its roughly 250 members, she said. “We’re open to all people because we’re all God’s children.”