In Franconia, a House Divided

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 27, 2007

Burned nearly to the ground by an electrical fire three years ago this month, Laurel Grove Baptist Church still stands in ruins. The roof, floor and two walls are gone. The pulpit and a lonely microphone stand forlornly under the sky, looking not onto a sanctuary of pews but into the gaping basement below.

Yet evidence of Laurel Grove's intimate scale remains. With its hand-painted sign, lancet windows and modest, white-clapboard profile, the church looks like it would be more at home in the rural South than in front of an office park in the Springfield Mixing Bowl's shadow.

That scale has attracted worshipers from across the region: government employees and retired military officers yearning for a sense of community that can prove elusive in transient Washington.

But the church's growth, in turn, has threatened the very character that drew many of its members. And it has cleaved the congregation, separating those who see Laurel Grove changing for the worse from those who think there is only one direction -- forward.

Laurel Grove's destruction has only hardened those differences as members have fought over the size of the new church and faced the challenge of thriving while remaining small. The dispute has resulted in divided services, a legal battle to remove the pastor and accusations of assault. But the conflict also has raised questions beyond the church, questions that have defined this region for decades: How do people create and preserve a community? How should it grow or not grow? And is it possible to damage, and even destroy, a place in the name of saving it?

"It's messy right now," said Delores Comer, a member and unofficial historian of Laurel Grove. "I would like to see Laurel Grove rebuilt as it was. Going back to the time when the original families were there, knowing the struggles that they encountered to maintain their position in that community, the dedication and the hard work that they put forth, I would want to see it just as it was."

Originally part of a 13-acre farm belonging to freed slaves William and Georgiana Jasper, Laurel Grove was founded in the 1880s when the Jaspers donated a half-acre to build a church for the community of former slaves living nearby. They gave another half-acre next door to start the Laurel Grove Colored School. They and others built a one-room schoolhouse for youngsters often referred to as the first generation born free.

According to the Laurel Grove School Association, students were harassed and lacked resources. They closed the shutters to prevent rocks from breaking windows. They learned geography without maps. The school educated young black students from 1886 to 1932, and then it closed.

Today, the school and church stand together on Beulah Road in Franconia as monuments to a proud community. The school, its one room sparsely furnished, is the only African American schoolhouse preserved in Northern Virginia. It hosts students from Fairfax County public schools for tours and lessons in black history.

The church's congregation remains predominantly black. Many of its members have intimate knowledge of Laurel Grove's history. Many know the names of the original families -- names such as Jasper, Braxton, Carroll and Gray, some of which are inscribed on headstones in the church graveyard.

But the church has struggled to remain small. The modest white structure has almost been swallowed up by the surrounding metropolis. Laurel Grove stands little more than a mile from the Mixing Bowl, the busiest highway interchange in the region. It is also within shouting distance of Fort Belvoir and Route 1 and is surrounded by some of the most densely populated U.S. Census areas in Fairfax. It would be easy to miss if the ravages of fire didn't present such a dramatic profile to passersby.

A Taste of the Past

Still, Laurel Grove has not suffered from the growth around it; if anything, the reverse might be true. Described in its literature as "the little church by the side of the road," Laurel Grove markets itself as something quaint in a large urban area. Many of its members have come seeking to re-create a place from their pasts.

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