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Black history helped shape Stafford’s story

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Frank White and a member of the Bethlehem Baptist Church congregation demonstrate how to do a ‘call and response’ pattern while singing the hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ / Photos by Jessica Koers

Frank White and a member of the Bethlehem Baptist Church congregation demonstrate how to do a ‘call and response’ pattern while singing the hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ / Photos by Jessica Koers

Twenty-five pairs of feet stomped in time to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as a 23rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops re-enactor marched down the aisle to the front of Bethlehem Baptist Church.

“The history can be his story, her story or my story,” said Frank White, an African–American Stafford historian. “But all of this program is part of our history.”

Members of the Stafford County community gathered Saturday at the Stafford church to celebrate the role the White family and Bethlehem Baptist played in shaping the county’s history.

The program, Civil War to Civil Rights: Through the Eyes of Gordon White, was also a part of the events being held throughout the year in honor of Stafford’s 350th Anniversary.

Gordon Sherman White speaks during Saturday’s local black history program.

Gordon Sherman White speaks during Saturday’s local black history program.

“This is the first time they have included African–Americans in their commemoration,” White said. “Fifty years ago, we were in the middle of the civil rights movement.”

Before Bethlehem Baptist Church, there was White Oak Primitive Baptist Church, which was located at the intersection of State Route 603 and State Route 218. It was here that Gordon White Sr., born in 1859, attended church separated from the white population of the congregation by a 3-foot wall.

“The divide of inequality was as wide as the Potomac was long,” said retired Chief Master Sgt. Bernard L. White, great-grandson to Gordon White Sr.

After the Civil War, the Stafford black community wanted a church of their own and founded Bethlehem Baptist Church in 1870. White attended this church, and years later his great-grandchildren are still going to the regular Sunday service.

It is also White’s great-grandchildren whose actions forced Stafford County to begin integrating its schools in 1962, which was years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the end of the “Massive Resistance” movement in Virginia.

“I think we were in the right place at the right time,” said Frank White, also a great-grandson of Gordon White Sr. “But it wasn’t just us working. If it wasn’t going to be us, someone else would have done it.

Gordon Sherman White, great-grandson of Gordon White Sr., was one of the five students who attempted to integrate Stafford High School and whose actions that day eventually led to a fully integrated school system in Stafford County by 1964.

“It’s a long way from where it used to be, but it has a long way to go,” Frank White said.

Jessica Koers: 540/374-5444, jkoers@freelancestar.com 

PIECES OF HISTORY

On Feb. 28, the Rowser Building in Stafford County became home to a handful of items that belonged to black residents who played a role Stafford’s history.

Dr. Lewis Brown donated the following items from his private collection:

  • Jet and HUE Magazines that captured the events shaping history in 1960s Stafford.
  • An NBA basketball signed by Ray “Slam Dunk” Williams. He played for the N.Y. Knicks and lived in Stafford during the offseason.
  • An MLB baseball signed by Buck O’ Neil. He lived in Stafford before his career took off, and he played for the Kansas City Monarchs.
  • An Our Gang Short titled “A Tough Winter,” which was filmed in Stafford and features Lincoln Perry, who went by the stage name Stepin Fetchit.
  • The beret and suspenders worn by Fred Berry in the T.V. show “What’s Happening!!” Brown said Berry was once a real estate agent in the county.

Brown said he donated the items because he wanted to show the side of Stafford that did welcome the black community.

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