In some form or another, the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church has stood next to what is now Lee Highway since 1882. But a 2012 arson forced the historic black church — a linchpin of an historic black community in Gainesville — to move. All that stands now is a burnt out building and a graveyard with headstones dating all the way back to 1885. But efforts to rebuild saw a boost last week in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
With the help of Del. Danica Roem, the church’s GoFundMe campaign received over $20,000 in donations in under two days, bringing the five-year-old campaign to over half of what the church says is needed for the first phase of repairs.
“What’s going on right now in the African American community, I think the attention the church is getting right now is because of what’s happening in the community, and what has happened in our community,” said Janet Robinson, the congregation’s treasurer.
It’s not the first time the church has had to rebuild. In the heart of what was once known as The Settlement — an area of what is now Gainesville where freed blacks were allowed to purchase land in the aftermath of the Civil War — the first church building on Lee Highway burnt down in 1889. Back then, the community was more than able to support a rebuild.
Today is a different story, despite a number of church members whose family’s stretch back five generations to the founding of The Settlement. According to Deacon Henry Peterson, many of the church’s members are seniors living on fixed incomes. Contract work has already begun, but of the $100,000 the congregation says it will need to complete the first phase — which would complete the new roof, the building’s second level and the exterior brick — less than $25,000 had been raised before last week.
In February, Velma Pridemore, a church trustee, told InsideNoVa that seven years after the fire that destroyed their building, the congregation was still far from being able to rebuild.
“We’re nowhere close to coming back here. We started the first phase, but that has taken almost all of the money we have. Every night I go to bed; every morning I get up and I pray, ‘Lord, give me something to get money for my church,’” Pridemore said. “... I want to be a part of preserving our history. You want your sixth, seventh, eighth generations to know where they came from.”
With the entire nation gripped by protests of racial injustice and police brutality following Floyd’s death, Roem said she saw an opportunity to turn people’s focus on something local. Heading back from a protest in Gainesville last Monday, she thought about the church, and how long it's taken to raise money for repairs. So she started blasting the church’s information and its GoFundMe page to her social media followers, namely 91,000 accounts who follow her on Twitter.
“It got me thinking like, only two miles down the street is Carver Road. The descendants of those black residents who did not choose to come to Prince William County but when finally given the freedom they should’ve always had to begin with, they chose to stay in Prince William County, and they bought land on Carver Road and their descendants are still there,” Roem told InsideNoVa. “Year after year we’ve seen million-dollar houses go up in Prince William County and the entire rebuilding would cost $1.1 million. We have not fixed an injustice to these people that have lived in Prince William County. How could we not have done something about it by now? How is it possible that that place is still charred inside?”
As of Tuesday, the fund stands at more than $55,000.
Robinson said the 130-member congregation is grateful for the attention Roem has given them, and more optimistic that it can ultimately raise enough money to complete the biggest parts of the repair.
“It’s a blessing to the church. The fire occurred in 2012 and we were underinsured. We’re a small congregation and unfortunately we just don’t have the financial assets to rebuild,” Robinson said. “So the community has been a blessing to us in the past and they’re continuing to be a blessing.”