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.”