Please welcome guest author Ray Wright. Wright is the Curator of Historic Buildings at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, VA.
Mount Tabor United Methodist Church is a historically African American congregation that worships near the village of New Hope, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Nestled near the edge of the woods of Round Hill, a traditionally African American community, the picturesque white church building guards the small cemetery that holds generations of Mount Tabor families. Built in the early decades of the twentieth century, the present church replaced a small log structure, which served as the original meeting place for the Mount Tabor congregation. Approximately 21’ x 25’, the old building still saw use as a fellowship hall for the small congregation.
Local historians are well aware of the old log church and its historical significance; some believe it to be the oldest surviving African American place of worship in Augusta County. The true origins and age of the building are a bit cloudy, and those who have taken on the difficult task of documenting the history of Mount Tabor Church differ somewhat on their respective findings. The earliest date attributed to the congregation is 1841, when it was called Round Hill Providence Church.
This congregation, it is suggested, built the present log church in 1870. Others date the building somewhat earlier, calling upon the local tradition that the log church served as a hospital in the aftermath of the Civil War Battle of Piedmont in June of 1864. Recent research suggests that the building may also have served as a school for the postbellum African American community around Round Hill. Just about everyone agrees, though, that the building was used as a place of worship for African Americans who endured the spiritual and social transitions from slavery to freedom.
Despite the log church’s significant, if uncertain, past, the present congregation of Mount Tabor feared their little log church might have an uncertain future. With the congregation dwindling in size and advancing in age, it became apparent to the church members that they were no longer able to care for and preserve the old church. As the building tottered on the edge of decay, the congregation of Mount Tabor United Methodist church decided to take action. They contacted the Frontier Culture Museum, located in nearby Staunton, Virginia.
The Frontier Culture Museum is an open-air museum whose mission is to chronicle the history of the settling of the Appalachian backcountry in the 18th century and to examine the antebellum American culture formed by the blending of these English, Germanic, northern Irish, and West African peoples. The museum’s interpretive thrust relies heavily on the use of costumed interpreters engaging in living history demonstration and programs, usually in, or in the shadow of, authentic historic buildings. These buildings were removed from their original locations and re-erected at the museum on landscapes reconstructed to represent the aforementioned cultures. With its serious collection of 17th-, 18th-, and nineteenth-century buildings, the Frontier Culture seemed like a logical home for the old Mount Tabor Church.
While the antebellum history of Mount Tabor United Methodist Church dovetails nicely with the Frontier Culture Museum’s mission, the building itself presents a twofold dilemma. First, most of the museum’s artifacts, buildings included, must date before 1860. If the building is as old as the congregation’s oral history suggests, it would fit perfectly in the museum’s collection of vernacular architecture. But an authenticated date of 1870 is well beyond the cut-off date of 1860, and making an exception to that rule could possibly start the museum down the narrow road of mission creep and possibly affect the museum’s future collection and building restoration practices. More importantly, the museum would run the risk of compromising its programmatic integrity by interpreting the enslaved experience in a building that did not exist before the Civil War, further marginalizing an already underrepresented community.
However, surviving African American architecture dating to around the time of emancipation is very rare. And the question of whether or not its date of construction falls on either side of the Civil War becomes less important when considering that the construction of Mount Tabor Church was part of a historical process that began when the first West Africans and African Americans made their way into the backcountry with the earliest settlers. Were the hands that built Mt. Tabor Church enslaved or free? The answer to that question is for now uncertain, but we can conclude that those who engaged in this labor of love had once labored in bondage.
This affirmation provoked the Frontier Culture Museum into accepting Mount Tabor Church into its collection of architecture and the story of the Mount Tabor Church congregation into its historical narrative. Not only was an important piece of architecture saved from destruction, but a significant story was saved from oblivion. The museum now had a building with which to tell at least part of the story of West Africans and their descendants becoming American.
The documentation process began right away. Since archival records were little help in establishing the actual age of the building, the church itself became the primary document. This scientific approach began with archaeologists excavating a series of test pits around the building, hoping to shed light on the origins of both the church building and the congregation. The artifacts recovered from this survey are currently under analysis. A dendrochronologist is trying to establish an exact age of Mount Tabor Church by taking tree ring samples from the logs. By counting growth rings and comparing them to a data base of tree ring growth for this area, he will be able to determine its exact age.
While waiting for the results of these tests, the museum staff began the careful process of dismantling Mount Tabor Church. After taking measurements, each piece of the building was tagged, cataloged, and photographed in situ. As these parts were removed, the staff made careful observations about how the building was built in an effort to establish a date of construction. Each piece was saved to either go back into the re-assemblage of the building or to serve as a pattern for missing components.
The documentation process is by no means complete. Many more questions remain to be answered. Additional archaeological examinations are planned for the cemetery in a sensitive effort to document unmarked and perhaps older graves. A thorough search is underway for surviving documents relating to Mount Tabor Church and the Round Hill community. The museum is identifying key individuals with whom to conduct oral histories. And as with all of the Frontier Culture Museum’s exhibits, the research and learning about Mount Tabor Church will never end.
Mount Tabor United Methodist Church is now nestled into a shipping container on museum grounds awaiting its resurrection. Construction will begin in the winter of 2013-14 with an estimated completion date of June, 2014. In the meantime, the Frontier Culture Museum will continue its efforts to reconstruct and record the legacy left by the first West Africans and African Americans on the frontier.