Special to the New Journal & Guide
On June 24, members of the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, unveiled a marker noting the historic legacy of the 153-year-old Virginia Beach church.
The marker, sponsored by the Church’s Historic Society, was approved by The Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Pleasant Grove is the first African-American Baptist Church in Virginia Beach to have a state highway historic marker, according to Virginia Beach Historian Edna Hawkins Hendrix, who worked with the Historical Society to apply for it back in 2017.
The marker is located in front of the original site of the church at the Corner of Centerville Turnpike and Kempsville Road.
The new church, Tabernacle Worship Center at Pleasant Grove, is about a mile from the old sanctuary.
According to Hendrix, along with the century-and-a half-old church, it has a historic cemetery nearby.
Hendrix said about 100 graves have been identified with the existing markers or death certificates at the site at 1925 Kempsville Rd.
“We should never forget the history of what happened in the lives of people who accomplished and survived such an arduous journey,” noted the church’s historical society.
The Centerville Historical Society was organized on July 13, 2017, with a group of families and Pleasant Grove Baptist Church members who came together in prayer and faith in God to preserve the legacy and spiritual belief of a historic African-American community.
“Pleasant Grove Baptist Church began in 1870,” according to notes on the history of the church written by the Historical Society in its unveiling program booklet. “Our ancestors came from different places to Princess Anne County, now Virginia Beach, Virginia. They also came out of slavery, wanted a place to worship and praise God for uplifting his Kingdom, and decided to purchase this land.”
“Our ancestors were farmers working from sunup to sundown,” according to the Historical Society. “Some served in the armed forces of World War I and II. Birth dates of some of the graves date back as far as 1862. Their struggles remind us that we are here today because of their faith in God during their difficult journey.”
Along with the church and the graveyard, the church was at the center of desegregating the public schools in Princess Anne County (now Virginia Beach) in September of 1962, according to the Guide.
Several Black organizations in the county joined forces to orchestrate the entrance of 37 Black students “without fuss” to all-white schools: 31 at Woodstock Elementary; two at Kempsville Elementary; and four at Kempsville Junior High.
Leading the effort was Junius L. Gills, President of the Centerville League and Ingentor W. L. McCoy, Vice President. Both were members of the church.
The Virginia Board of Historic Resources approved the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church and Cemetery highway marker at its meeting on March 17, 2022.
The text on the Marker is as follows: “Pleasant Grove Baptist Church and Cemetery Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, constituted by 1882, was built here on land purchased in 1888. The congregation, organized by
African-Americans who had settled in the Centerville community after Emancipation, belonged to the Norfolk, Virginia Union Baptist Association, one of the earliest associations of Black Baptists in the South. In 1962, Pleasant Grove member Junius Gills led a successful effort to desegregate area public schools; organizational meetings were held here, and members of the church were among the first Black children to integrate the schools. Buried in the cemetery are many community members, including persons formerly enslaved and veterans of World Wars I and II.”
The Centerville Historical Society organized the marker unveiling. Larnell Smith, Marcellus Barnard, Rev. Ervin Vaughan, and Edna Hawkins Hendrix initially spearheaded the project to research the content for the historical marker and attain state approval.