Watoga Trail Report

Americorps/ US Forest Service specialists flanking the Gordon Scott commemorative sign, l to r: Kelsey Romer, Caroline Hildebrand and Ivrine Makia. K. Springer photo

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

Pleasant Green Methodist Episcopal Church
The work goes on

“None who have always been free can understand the terrible, fascinating power of the hope of freedom to those who are not free.”
~ Pearl S. Buck

Recently, several volunteers were clearing brush from the back end of the graveyard, where it drops steeply to a small stream. A shout went out from one of the workers, “Hey, I found another stone.”

Tools were dropped to the ground as everyone scrambled over to see the find – a bare rectangular stone with a single link of chain attached. It was one of several grave markers found behind the Pleasant Green Church that marks the graves of former slaves, those who had finally found freedom.

The effect on the volunteers was palpable.

“When I was looking for gravesites, it was just an academic exercise. Seeing this stone and acknowledging its inescapable implications makes it a deeply emotional experience,” one humbly remarked.

Scant information is available about the actual construction of the church in 1888, but here is what we do know.

The land where the church sits was sold to the trustees by W.L. and M.L. McNeel for the sum of $30, fifteen of which was returned for the structure’s construction. A proviso of the sale required that the church also serve as a school for the black children.

Ben Perkins is listed as the first Pastor of the church and was said to have taken part in its construction. Among the family names of his first parishioners were Tibbs, Bolden, Jackson, Anderson, Lee, Scott, Stewart, Pryor, Grant, Thompson and Taylor, all prominent black family names in the area.

Local churches made generous donations to the new Pleasant Green Church in the form of oil lamps from the Presbyterian Church of Seebert, and the rail and pulpit from the Wesley Chapel Southern Methodist Church in Hillsboro. Said items still reside in the church to this very day. 

As black families moved away from Pocahontas County for work, educational opportunities or to be close to family, many of their churches fell into disrepair, including the Pleasant Green Church.

At this point, the name of a much-beloved local farmer comes into play, Moffett McNeel.

In addition to farming 880 acres in Hillsboro, Mr. McNeel belonged to, and presided over, an exhaustive list of organizations including, but not limited to, 4-H, Farm Bureau, Pocahontas County Board of Education and the Pocahontas County Historical Landmarks Commission.

It was during his tenure as chairman of the Landmarks Commission that he spearheaded the successful effort to get the Pleasant Green Church listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Moffett McNeel died July 2, 2013, not long after his dream of getting official acknowledgment for the Pleasant Green Church was realized. He was in the hospital and unable to attend the dedication of the church as a National Historic Place by the Department of the Interior on June 29, 2013.

The dedication ceremony brought people in from all over the country, including many of the family names associated with the church through the years.

Robert Beanblossom and Mike Smith were there representing West Virginia State Parks for the dedication of the Gordon Scott memorial sign – Mr. Scott was the first black superintendent of a state park, Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park. He and his wife, Annie Bell Scott, are buried next to each other in the church graveyard.

Over 125 people showed up that beautiful summer day, many of whom were former church members. Also attending were representatives of organizations responsible for its inclusion in the registry. And the same couple who initiated the restoration of the church, Jim and Mary Johnson, were on hand for the celebration, as well.

Ruth Taylor, also with the Landmarks Commission, has conducted an extraordinary amount of research about the church and its parishioners, and has worked tirelessly to create a comprehensive inventory of burials in the graveyard.

Many of the grave markers were lying askew, hidden under dense brush, or had no name on the stone. We suspect some graves have no markings whatsoever, as evidenced by several areas where the ground has collapsed.

Ruth has taken the lead in the physical restoration of the church in recent years, including engaging skilled AmeriCorps artisans in repairing the fragile stained glass windows.

Along with Jane Huppert, representative of the trustees of Pleasant Green Church, Ruth has been repairing much of the church’s interior. Their vision is that the church will, once again, be a gathering place for weddings and funerals, and will also serve as a museum for the African American experience in Pocahontas County.

Much of the work has been accomplished through volunteer events, such as the one held September 18 and 19 of this year. In just two days, the graveyard was expanded and cleared of dense brush that covered several gravestones, including that of an unnamed former slave. 

Sam Parker, of West Virginia Parks, cleared away trees and brush to create access to the graves of Gordon Scott and his wife. A short trail and marker are being planned to provide visitors with historical information about Mr. Scott.

Brush was cleared around the margins of the graveyard, and several stones that had fallen over were set upright again.

Much needed repairs were made to the front door by Trevor Swan, who calls himself a handyman, and he’s an excellent one, too, I might add.

AmeriCorps members, working with the United States Forest Service, showed up to lend their expertise to the project, including two archaeologists.

Many thanks to those who gave of their time and skills. The list is long, and I apologize if I missed somebody, but the generous community-minded citizens include Gail Hyer, Cynthia Sandeno, Bill McNeel, Sam Parker, Trevor Swan, David Curtis, John Green, Caroline Hilderbrand, Ivrine Makia, Hanna Scraford, Emily Culp, Julia Derringer, Gavin Hale, Bob Taylor (he had to be there – no choice), Kelsey Romer and Jane Huppert.

It was in every sense of the word, a community project; something we are good at here in Pocahontas County.

Author’s note: I had the privilege of attending the dedication ceremony in 2013. I remember that the church was so packed with people that many were gathered outside the open doors listening to the speakers inside as best they could.

Though, my most salient memory of that event was talking to folks who were former members of the Pleasant Green Church. We first talked over food and later as we walked among the gravestones.

At that time, I was gathering information about Reverend Vernie Bolden, who had built the famous “Stone House.” Oh, the stories they told about Reverend Vernie and Ms. Eddy; the laughter seemed to go on for hours.

I returned a few days later to photograph the gravestones. When I knelt to take a picture of Ms. Eddy’s small marble stone, the stories told about her came back to mind. I can only imagine what anybody passing by on Seebert Lane would have made of an older man kneeling alone in a graveyard having the laugh of his life.

I have always felt that humor is one of the most important aspects of being human, and it was never better demonstrated than on that warm June day when the Pleasant Green Church and its grounds were once again full of joyous laughing. 

Next week on the Watoga Trail Report, How Fungi Made Our Planet Green.

Ken Springer

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