As Henrico County and the rest of the nation emerged from the ashes of the Civil War, a church was founded.
Since 1867, Mount Olive Baptist Church has been a continuous presence in a section of Glen Allen once known as Yellow Tavern. Today, the oldest predominantly black church in that part of the county marks its 149th anniversary and prepares for its 150th.
“We’re having a yearlong celebration,” said Deloris Lawson, chairwoman of the church’s historical ministry.
The 500-member congregation located off Mountain Road near Brook Road has much to celebrate.
The church came to be after former slaves and freedmen who worshipped at the predominantly white North Run Baptist Church desired their own church, according to records collected by Mount Olive members. Those founding members purchased 1.18 acres from a Quaker named Mary Jane Crenshaw, and the church has been at that location ever since.
Although the deed has a date of May 2, members of the historical ministry found a Richmond Planet article and other documents noting the observed anniversary date.
“We found an article from the Library of Congress that referred to the anniversary in July of 1898 … and bulletins from 1944 when we celebrated our anniversary in July,” Lawson said.
The 1898 article mentioned that attendees of the anniversary could arrive from Richmond via one of two wagons or by trolley. In recent memory, many of the congregants still arrived by wagon and the roads leading to Mount Olive were unpaved. The church still has stones that were used to scrape mud from shoes.
In the early days, the church met in what was called a brush arbor, an A-framed structure made of brush and tree limbs, according to a drawing of it. Afterward, a log cabin was built and then a frame structure. In 1976, a brick building was constructed and served the church until its current two-building complex opened in 2004 and 2010.
“We were the anchor of this community,” said Lawson, who considers herself a “newbie” for being a church member for 35 years.
For more than 100 years, the church had services only twice a month, as it shared its pastor with other congregations.
“We only had service on two Sundays, the second and the fourth,” said Lloyd E. Jackson Jr., a historical ministry member and deacon. He has been a church member for 81 years.
“The preacher preached every Sunday, but not at the same place,” said Thomasine Lawrence, who has been a member of the church for 47 years.
For a while, there was a 3 p.m. service, said Eugene Mallory, a trustee and historical ministry member who has been with the church for 78 years.
“It would be good and dark when we leave,” Mallory said.
“It was long,” said Jackson, drawing laughter among the historical ministry members as he recalled his youth. “For children, it was long.”
When there wasn’t church services, activity still occurred in the building. Until the Virginia Randolph school opened, the education of the area’s black children most likely occurred at Mount Olive.
“We don’t have definite proof, but where else would it have been?” Lawson said. “We were the only institution for African-Americans from 1867 through 1882.”
Additionally, Sunday school would be held when the pastor was at another church. A bell was rung to mark when it would be in session.
“I rang it several times,” said Charles Anderson, also a historical ministry member and parishioner for the past 73 years.
The bell, which was in the frame church, is now housed in a structure in the churchyard.
For years, the church also had some responsibility for the nearby Anderson Cemetery, which church members recently have begun restoring.
“The members of this church came together and formed an organization, the Sons of Jacob,” Lawson said. “Their main purpose was to make sure that individuals in the community were decently buried. They took care of each other during times of sickness, and they made sure we had a place of proper burial.”
Over time, aging parishioners and the lack of perpetual care agreements for cemeteries in the 19th century contributed to the graveyard’s decline.
The church community came from a wide area of central Henrico, the ministry members said. After coming from as far as Wilkinson and Scott roads, there was a yearly pilgrimage at least about 6 more miles to Echo Lake Park.
“We went up to Echo Lake for baptism,” Jackson said. “We have a baptismal in the frame church, but we never used it. We went up there in September after our revival.”
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SOURCE: Richmond Times-Dispatch – Elliott Robinson