Grace United Methodist in Manassas combined two historical matters in one event June 11.
One was the unveiling of a city historical marker for the church, which has ministered to Manassas-area residents for 150 years. That was a cause for celebration, the Rev. Rudy Tucker said.
The other, the public opening of a restored slave cabin on the church property, was more solemn. But while refurbishing the building meant researching one of the most gruesome times in American history, Grace United Methodist and local historic preservation volunteers considered it an important task.
“With nooses showing up on public school grounds, college campuses, and even national museums, and Klan rallies occurring with alarming frequency, we are reminded as we stand before this 19th-century building which once housed slaves that racism remains an issue we are still dealing with in this country,” Tucker said in remarks prepared for the June 11 ceremony, attended by a crowd of at least 150.
Grace United Methodist took over ownership of the slave cabin in 1987. The Johnson family, which owned and operated the last farm in Manassas, donated eight acres of land on Wellington Road to the congregation so it could build a new church building. But the family stipulated that a cemetery on the tract be preserved, along with the 1½-story structure that housed slaves who worked on the property, known as Clover Hill Farm.
The building, made up of two small rooms and an attic, was constructed with sandstone gathered locally. Preservationists are unsure when it was built, but it would have been circa 1832, restoration project manager Bill Olson said. That means it may be the oldest building in Manassas.
Before preservation work began four or five years ago, the cabin was being used for storage by Boy Scout Troop 670, which meets at Grace United Methodist. But Olson, a member of the church, made a deal with the Scouts to build a larger facility for their gear.
Restoring the slave quarters cost about $40,000, which included a new cedar-shingle roof, new doors and the acquisition of period furnishings, as well as historic reproductions such as a banjo made from a gourd.
“The banjo is an African instrument, and slaves would fabricate these things,” said Dennis Van Derlaske, Olson’s neighbor and a member of the Prince William County Historical Commission.
Van Derlaske and daughter Kristin worked on obtaining the furnishings that are displayed along with artifacts found on-site during an archaeological study done in 1989 and 1990. Those items include a griddle, buttons, marbles, a spoon and an inkwell.
The cabin, which measures only about 320 square feet, would have been intended for two families, and the slaves who lived there probably worked in the main house on the farm, which was about 400 or 500 feet away, Olson said.
He said the restoration work was meant as a way to honor those who were enslaved at Clover Hill.
“We wanted to do [it] for the usual historical reason, preservation, but also to help remember the people who were here,” he said.
EJ Scott, vice president of the county branch of the NAACP, said members of the group attended the cabin’s open house ceremony.
Ensuring that the building was restored “speaks to the better nature” of those involved, Scott said, and the finished product means that Prince William-area residents don’t have to travel to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the District to learn about the plight of slaves.
Children, especially, can visit the cabin and be inspired by how slaves were able to withstand the horrific conditions in which they lived, she said.
Scott also noted that while some may not be happy to revisit the subject of slavery, it is a part of the nation’s past. She repeated a phrase that she often uses: “African American history is American history.”