‘We got a lot of history in there’: The 10th and Grady church tells the story of a city

The 10th and Grady church. Photo: Stephen Barling The 10th and Grady church. Photo: Stephen Barling

 

A crane looms over a huge glass rectangle. The shiny office block, just completed, sits behind Preston Avenue’s old Monticello Dairy factory, where renovation work has been underway since 2018. When the new Dairy Central corner is fully operational next year, the complex will boast state-of-the-art office space, swanky apartments, and a “Brooklyn-based coffee roasting company.”

Just across the street, slate shingles have cracked and fallen from the steep roof of an old church. The thick glass window panes have yellowed; some windows are boarded up. Green and white paint has flaked off the wooden siding, and ivy has completely enveloped one wall of the church’s small side building. Next to a mud-caked basement window is a cornerstone inscribed with the words “Trinity Church 1939.”

It’s easy to miss amid all the construction, but the ramshackle little building, at the edge of one of the city’s last remaining historically black neighborhoods, has a story far richer than the exterior might suggest.

Our sleek future lurks across the street. But if you want to understand Charlottesville’s last century—and get a clearer glimpse into the fate of the rapidly developing city—start with the story of the 10th and Grady church.

 

Running from ‘renewal’

One-hundred-and-one years ago, Charlottesville’s Trinity Episcopal congregation first worshiped together. Soon after forming, the group found a home in a small church on the corner of Preston Avenue and High Street, at the base of Vinegar Hill, the black neighborhood where many of their congregants lived. They wouldn’t be there long.

“When I was a youngster, people lived on Preston Avenue down by where Lane High School is now,” recalls George Ferguson, in the oral history collection Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville. Ferguson was a prominent undertaker who served as the head of the local NAACP chapter in the 1950s.

“There were some stores down there,” he says. “There were some barbershops. There were some residences…Those were taken over by eminent domain—the city—when they built that Lane High School back down there in the ’30s.”

Throughout the 20th century, the City of Charlottesville has invoked eminent domain to seize and destroy the land and homes of black people, in the name of a loosely defined public good. The construction of whites-only Lane High School in the late ’30s was the city’s first major urban renewal project. (The stately building, with its spacious green lawn, now houses Albemarle County’s administrative offices.)

Trinity Episcopal’s original church was among the buildings destroyed to make way for the segregated school. After 20 years, the congregation had no home.

Undaunted, the group moved down the street a few blocks, purchasing the land where the 10th and Grady church now sits. Today, that land is right in the heart of the city, pressed up against one of Charlottesville’s busiest roads. In 1939, it was a vacant lot.

This is where the church building comes in—literally. The church itself was built 20 miles away in Palmyra, in Fluvanna County, in 1910. The Episcopal congregation in Fluvanna disbanded in the late ’30s, and gifted its church to the Episcopalians in Charlottesville, who dismantled the building, moved the parts into town, and rebuilt it completely by the spring of 1939.

Poetically, the last service in the old High Street building, before it was destroyed, was held on Good Friday. The first service in the new Trinity Church on 10th and Grady was held on Easter—Resurrection Sunday.

 

Resisting massive resistance

“The old Trinity Episcopal church there on 10th and Grady was a benchmark church in Charlottesville,” says Richard Johnson, who has lived in Charlottesville on and off for his whole life.

“Most of our members were very outgoing people,” Johnson says. “Doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, the whole nine yards.”

Richard Johnson and his mother Lelia Brown have been members of the Trinity Episcopal church since the days when the congregation met in the 10th and Grady building. Photo: Eze Amos

Trinity’s leaders became the city’s leaders. In 1935, Reverend Cornelius Dawson helped found Barrett Early Learning Center, which still exists today. Henry Mitchell, the vicar in the ’50s, served as the second black member of Charlottesville’s School Board. And Ferguson, the NAACP leader, was an active member of the congregation.

These leaders were poised to confront the next crisis that would transform life in Charlottesville—school desegregation. Although Lane High had been built atop the wreckage of Trinity Church, the City of Charlottesville wouldn’t let the congregants’ children attend the segregated high school—even after Brown v. Board mandated integration.

In 1958, Charlottesville became one of a handful of localities around Virginia to engage in “massive resistance.” The city closed its schools rather than allow black students to learn in all-white classrooms.

During the shutdown, the congregation organized classes in the 10th and Grady church.

When the schools were closed, Johnson recalls, “The white kids…formed something called Rock Hill Academy at the old school. So Trinity said, ‘Well now we got a lot of these kids here that need to get educated.’”

“We had classes at the church until the governor and the state could get their act together to make sure the integration finally happened,” Johnson says.

Over the years, the congregation grew too large for the 10th and Grady building. In the mid-’70s, Trinity Episcopal sold its church to the owners of the dairy factory across the street, and moved to a new building a little further down Preston, where it still meets today.

For Johnson, though, the memories of the 10th and Grady building run deep.

“My parents were married in that church,” he says. “I am a third generation Episcopalian—my grandparents were members of that church…I was christened there. I was confirmed there.”

“I know a little bit about that building,” he says. “I’m very proud of my church.”

 

Sing along

“I don’t know where you come from, amen,” proclaims Pastor William Nowell. “But I declare, amen, we are to know where we’re going.” He’s in full flight, dressed in a sharp white suit, shaking and shouting and preaching to a packed house of finely dressed congregants. Blues guitars and a tambourine and dozens of voices provide the gospel score for the old man’s sermon.

The performance is recorded in the 2011 documentary Preacher, which focuses on Nowell and his New Covenant Pentecostal church. When the Trinity Episcopal congregation moved down the street in the ’70s, Nowell’s people moved in. They sang their songs from those red-felted pews until 2018.

William Nowell preaches in his congregation’s new home on Free Union Road. Photo courtesy New Covenant Pentecostal Church

Nowell’s church engaged with the surrounding community through music. “We did a lot of marching, singing, up and down the street,” the pastor now recalls. “We used to play for the Ten Miler [runners] every year. We would be on the sidewalk as they would go through.”

“It was a very special place,” Nowell says of the church. “We accomplished a lot of things while we was there. We had a daycare. We had an outreach ministry. We fed the homeless.”

As Charlottesville’s homeless population grew through the aughts, Nowell’s congregation made providing food a focus of its work. Preacher shows the preacher leaving Harris Teeter with a car full of food to be distributed by the church.

In the film, Nowell does other work, too —he choreographs a wedding for two young congregants, and performs a lively service at the local jail. Many of the church’s members lived in the nearby 10th and Page neighborhood. “That kind of impact on the community really did something for me,” he says.

After more than four decades, though, the congregation moved on. Making rent had become difficult. “Small congregation, we had a lot of people on fixed incomes,” Nowell says. And in the creaky old building, “Our heating bill was whoo.”

When Mount Amos Church offered Nowell rent-free use of its building 10 minutes outside of town, the preacher accepted, and the congregation left the 10th and Grady building behind.

Just as they moved out, the Dairy Central developers moved in across the street, but Nowell says the two aren’t related.

“We miss it, though,” Nowell says of the church. “We got a lot of history in there.”

 

Don’t have a cow

“The whole city is gentrifying. Every single neighborhood is gentrifying,” says Jeremy Caplin.

For decades, Caplin has been trying to staunch the bleeding—he owns dozens of houses in the 10th and Page neighborhood, which he rents at low rates to families that have lived there for a long time. But he can only do so much.

Shiny, boxy, modern homes now break up the rows of old bungalows with white front porches. Luxury apartments on West Main Street tower over the southern edge of the neighborhood. And the Dairy Central project chugs along.

The column-fronted Monticello Dairy building on Preston Avenue  housed a functioning dairy factory—and sold much-loved ice cream—from its construction in 1936 to its closure in 1985. Since then, it’s been a martial arts studio, a paintball arena, a music venue, and more.

The Monticello Dairy factory, pictured around the time the 10th and Grady church would have been constructed next door. Photo: Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

In 2017, Stony Point Development Group purchased the derelict factory for $11.9 million. The parcel of land Stony Point acquired includes the lot across the street, where the 10th and Grady church sits.

The Dairy Central project sets gentrification alarms blaring. It’s a posh apartment complex next to a historically low-income black neighborhood. Large tech companies with names like Dexcom and CoStar Group have already signed leases for office space, and so has Starr Hill craft brewery.

Caplin says it could be worse, though. “It was just a lot of surface parking lots that weren’t being used,” he says. “So they haven’t taken away from the neighborhood. They did a nice fix up on the original dairy…It’s murky but I’m cautiously optimistic.”

However, “I’m not sure the people in the neighborhood will go to the restaurants there,” Caplin says. “Whatever apartments they have there aren’t going to be affordable for blue-collar working people from the neighborhood.”

“We have taken a lot of pride in connecting with the community, trying to pay tribute to the history that’s on the property,” says Jodi Mills, the marketing and PR director at Stony Point.

Early attempts at community engagement have had mixed results. The developers have just begun painting a 61-foot-long mural of a cow on the side of their building, in homage to a large metal cow statue that once stood outside the dairy factory. Mills cites the cow mural as an example of the “historical reference” that the developers have prioritized.

“Talking about putting a cow on the wall. Please, give me a break,” said Gloria Beard, a longtime 10th and Page resident and community advocate, in March. “It’s supposed to be a historically black neighborhood. Put somebody that did something constructive in the city.”

The cow mural was approved by a narrow 3-2 City Council vote.

Mural aside, the Dairy Central developers are doing one thing right: They’re keeping the church.

Some residents have voiced their opposition to Dairy Central’s cow mural. Staff photo

The preservation situation

On the edge of town, the precious Woolen Mills Chapel has a bell tower that’s started to lean towards the road because the foundations are in such bad shape. In Fifeville, the home of important black educator Benjamin Tonsler sat with an unfinished porch and overgrown front lawn for years, ignored by owners who lived elsewhere. Both properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but that didn’t stop the decay. Many of the town’s most important historic properties from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have recently fallen through the cracks.

In Charlottesville, the burden of historic preservation most often falls on the owners of the property, which becomes problematic when those owners don’t care about preservation or don’t have the resources required for upkeep (or, in the extraordinary case of the chapel, don’t exist).

“Unless it’s Jeffersonian, Charlottesville’s not that strong on preservation,” Caplin says.

It seems like the 10th and Grady church will have a different fate. Tearing down the old building has “never been a consideration whatsoever,” says Mills.

Pastor Nowell corroborates that claim—he says the Dairy Central developers met with his congregation when they bought the property, and offered to help with upkeep. Caplin says  that some early, casual remarks from the developers left him on “high alert” about the church’s prospects for survival, but he’s happy to see that renovations have now begun.

The church needs serious work. Stony Point is replacing the roof and gutters, fixing foundational issues, removing lead paint, and more. The renovations will remain true to the original design of the structure—and cost more than $600,000, says Mills.

Johnson and Nowell are thankful that the church buildings will be preserved. “I understand they’re going to use them for educational purposes for the neighborhood,” Johnson says.

Destroying the building “would have been hateful,” Caplin says. “It’s a sweet little church.”

Now, renovations are underway, and the interior of the building is empty. Photo: Stephen Barling

In Charlottesville, an old building getting such a comprehensive face lift is unusual. The 10th and Grady church has been saved by a specific and fortunate set of circumstances.

The Dairy Central developers own the church because it happened to be connected to the property they actually wanted to buy—the empty factory next door. If it had been a separate parcel, it wouldn’t have been their problem.

And, while the $600,000 required to repair the church is far more than past congregations could invest, it represents a tiny percentage of the money Stony Point is pumping into the neighborhood.

“Believe me, we’ve had lots of people say to us, ‘that would make the coolest restaurant, that would make the coolest bar,’” Mills says, emphasizing Stony Point’s love of history. “That’s not what we’re looking to do.”

It’s not clear that Stony Point could put a restaurant there even if it wanted to. The property is zoned for residential use only, in an area with specific provisions in Charlottesville’s comprehensive plan. Converting the church into a restaurant would require a formal petition, a series of meetings, review from the planning commission, and an affirmative vote from City Council—hardly a sure thing.

This situation is an outlier: Charlottesville’s historic properties would look very different if every old building was serendipitously acquired by a wealthy developer who faced an extended back-and-forth with the city before the place could be turned into a bar.

So, when Stony Point is done, the church will look much as it does now—but with a fresh coat of (unleaded) paint. As for the tenants, Mills says, “there are absolutely no plans at this time.”

Whatever the church’s future holds, it’s clear that the building’s past has made an indelible impression on the people who have spent time underneath its slender, gabled roof.

This building doesn’t look like much—especially now, with the chipped paint, and the wild ivy, and the construction crew’s port-a-potty out front. But its history reflects the history of the city, to a marvelous degree. The 10th and Grady church has been a place of worship, but also a place of refuge, resistance, and music. Now, the building is a symbol of the gentrification transforming the city, and a test case for a town trying to figure out how to preserve its past. Charlottesville’s black history has been buried far too often, but this monument still stands, an example of all the history we have to preserve.

No one spent more time in the church than Nowell, who first entered the building in 1975 and kept going back nearly every day for more than 40 years.

He’s in his 80s now, but still preaching, and he still wants to help the little church any way he can.

“I would still like to get involved in something, [like a] community center,” he says. “We learned to know everybody in the neighborhood. Everybody knew us. Lot of them cried when we left.”

“It was just like a family,” the preacher says. “Keep me in touch…It still has a place in my heart.”

 

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Katherine e. Slaughter

Thanks for the great story, Ben Hitchcock. This little church caught my eye years ago although i never attended services there. I applaud the developers for repairing it and hope they will find it a new community purpose. Maybe the neighborhood has ideas. Can day care centers still be established in residential neighborhoods? It is not that far from the Medical Center where many hospital workers are parents of young children. I hope the developers consult with the 10th and Page Neighborhood, Leila and Richard Johnson of your story, other long time residents John Gaines and James Bryant, a member… Read more »