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Rembrance Days: The quest for freedom

Interior of Antioch Baptist Church. Courtesy Photo/Antioch Baptist Church
This is the second article in a four-part series

As Culpeper sets aside a weekend to celebrate its past, part of the remembrance of those bygone days is the acknowledgment that not all were free who called Culpeper home.
In a program titled: “Faith, Fortitude and the Quest for Freedom,” The River Bank Choir will tell of Culpeper's African-American heritage.
The program was written by local historian Zann Miner, who also produces and directs the program and sings in the choir. Miner is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in African-American history.

“The River Bank Choir started when we did a community event in September of 2012 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the crossing of the Rappahannock River by refugee slaves following Union troops after the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was announced by President Lincoln,” Miner said Monday in a telephone interview. “We literally sang on the bank above the river. It was informal, there were no practices and people were invited to step in and join us. We thought it would be only for that one day.”
However, Miner said, the choir has since been given the opportunity to do special programs in the area under the musical direction of Dr. Ellsworth Weaver, director of music at St. James Baptist Church in Bealeton.

The choirs performance, April 20, beginning at 7 p.m. in the sanctuary of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church – itself historic – will highlight the story of Culpeper's pre-Emancipation days. There is no charge. The concert will last approximately one hour. Reservations are recommended by calling Miner at: 547-2395 or e-mailing: M16439@aol.com
“We will hold reservations until a quarter to 7,” Miner said. “We dream of a full church,” Miner said. “If we are fortunate enough that the sanctuary is full we are planning for overflow seating in the Parish Hall where the service will be piped in.”

Miner said that while an hour is not much time to cover 245 years of history, she is hoping the service will inspire those who attend.
“Imagine living in Africa with your own identity then being captured and sent thousands of miles away to a life of slavery,” Miner said. “Their new culture was foreign in every aspect to them.
“The program will show in an uplifting way how far faith and fortitude can carry an individual. In between the music there will be a little bit of storytelling, but music is the most powerful portion of the program. (Enslaved people) crossed the Rappahannock which was iconically similar to the people crossing the Jordan in the Bible.”

Miner said the choir will have about 12 to 15 singers, both black and white.
“Just going to rehearsals is the highlight of the week for me,” Miner said. “Listening to the voices is remarkable. I'm amazed at the talent.”
Miner said singers come not only from Culpeper, but also from Rappahannock, Page, Clarke, Fauquier and Orange counties. One of the singers is especially dear to her – her 12-year-old granddaughter Marley Miner is in the choir.

“There was a lot of collaboration in putting the program together between the choir members, Dr. Weaver and myself,” Miner said. “This is without question a contribution from the heart of those who have had the time to join in the effort.”
Miner said she is open to more invitations for the River Bank Choir to preform and that she hopes to see the group grow.
“We would like to build the body of the choir,” Miner said. “If we (have more members) and are fortunate enough to get invited to future events we can pull from the larger group those whose schedules permit them to attend that particular event.”

Antioch Baptist Church
For the first time during Remembrance Days, this historic church will be open for tours on April 20 from 4 to 6 p.m. Members of the congregation will be available to guide visitors.

The church, one of the oldest in Culpeper, was organized in 1859 first as “the African Church.” The early congregation met at a Confederate barracks located near the railroad station, according to church records.
Antioch Baptist church emerged in 1865 under the direction of the Rev. Harrison Blair, Henry Lightfoot, Alexander Hart and Alexandria Jackson and was relocated to a lot near Locust Street. That church was destroyed by fire in 1873. The church met temporarily in a brick warehouse near the railroad station until in 1886 when the current sanctuary was constructed.

Pastor Adrian D. Sledge is the 11th pastor of the church. He began his ministry in Culpeper in Nov. 2011 following Pastor Milton L. Branch Sr.
“It is a very humbling experience to be the pastor of Antioch Baptist church,” wrote Sledge in an e-mail. “To be a part of this history gives me a sense of pride in knowing God trusted me to continue the great history of this church.

“I feel the symbolism of Antioch is not just about African-American history, but Culpeper history. I want the world to see the rich history and versatility the town of Culpeper has to offer and I felt like it was our responsibility to be a part of this awesome event. That is why we are opening for visits.”

Civil War spy
The story of Elizabeth Van Lew will be presented at St. Stephen's from 5 to 6 p.m. April 20. It will be preceded by a slide show from local historian Michael Block, beginning at 4:30 p.m. Admission is $5 at the door. The performance is sponsored by Windmore Foundation for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and Friends of Cedar Mountain Battlefield.

Lynn Ruehlmann portrays Van Lew, who lived in Richmond while spying for the Union and aiding soldiers and slaves.
“Elizabeth was both brave and quirky,” wrote Windmore member Kellie Doyle author of “Meet My Mysteries: A Paranormal memoir,” “A War Between the States.” and “Pig Male” in an e-mail. “She came from a wealthy family in Richmond and when her father died she set out using her portion of her inheritance to free slaves. This was before the war.

“During the war, Elizabeth frequented Libby Prison taking in food and reading materials for the prisoners and taking out intel about troop movements and passing them on to the Union. She earned the nickname 'Crazy Bet' but there is some conjecture whether she faked a bit of craziness so as to seem harmless or whether she was just odd. Regardless, she was seen as both a traitor and a hero, depending on who you asked.”

Info box:
What: Remembrance Days
When: April 19-21
Location of events: Museum of Culpeper History, Graffiti House, Culpeper Regional Airport, Hill House, St. Stephen's Episcopal and Antioch Church, Little Fork Episcopal Church, the Depot and Antioch Baptist Church
Admission: mostly free, some events have minimal charges.
More details: Facebook: Culpeper remembrance Days

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