Enslaved Africans transported to the New World beginning in the 15th century brought with them a wide range of local religious beliefs and practices. In a world turned upside down, these slaves clung to some semblance of normality through the religions they knew.
Over time many converted to Christianity, making it their own by combining it with their remembered traditions, beliefs, and practices. Prior to emancipation, African Americans organized their own “invisible institution” in the slave quarters and inside family homes. It was here that the spirituals, with their double meanings of religious salvation and freedom from slavery, developed and flourished.
After emancipation, more recognizable and formal churches were possible. One such church is Shiloh Baptist Church in Alderson, which was built in 1879 specifically for African Americans. Others include John Wesley Methodist Church and Mt. Tabor Baptist Church in Lewisburg each of which have unique and illustrious histories.
These churches and several others in the Greenbrier Valley became a place of refuge for African Americans where they were free to worship and socialize and build a community of strength as Christians. They continue to be a main focal point in the community for African Americans.
Mrs. Opal Jones, long time member of Shiloh Baptist Church in Alderson, said, “The churches in the Greenbrier Valley were very important. Church was the first avenue, besides home, where you received instruction on how to conduct yourself, your manners, and how to treat others. It was a primary source of socialization and education. Black teachers were usually Sunday School teachers and had added influence on the children’s learning.”
African American religious life in the Greenbrier Valley will be one of the tracks of the exhibit “Invisible Roots and Legends: A Photographic View of African American History in Greenbrier Valley, West Virginia” which will be held at the Cooper Gallery, 122 East Washington Street, Lewisburg, from Sept. 20 to Oct. 4. The exhibit will begin with an opening reception from 5-8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 20 and be available on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Fridays from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. It will consist of a collection of photographs and artifacts, from post-civil war to today, of African Americans who have contributed to the growth and development of this area in business, religion, education, sports, politics, and entertainment as well as general family life. The exhibit is free to the public and the photographs, many of which have been donated just for this exhibit, are not for sale.
On Friday, Sept. 26, from 6-8 p.m., Exhibit Curator Janice Cooley and Greenbrier Historical Society Archivist Jim Talbert will co-host a round table discussion of more in-depth history of African Americans in the Greenbrier Valley.