Africans transported to the New World beginning in the fifteenth
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
After emancipation, more recognizable and formal churches were
possible. One such church is Shiloh Baptist Church in Alderson, WV
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, WV from September 20 to October
4, 2014. The exhibit will begin with an opening reception from 5-8
on Saturday, September 20 and be available on Mondays, Tuesdays,
Thursdays, and Saturdays from 11-5 and Fridays from 11-6. 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
On Friday, September 26, from 6-8, 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.
PHOTO CAPTION: A Sunday School class at Shiloh Baptist Church in
Alderson, WV built in 1879.