HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — It’s surrounded by everyday traffic in a nondescript commercial corner of Hampton: a tiny structure of whitewashed wood flanked by passing traffic on Kecoughtan Road to the west and Ivy Home Road to the north.
Motorists often speed past this building to buy groceries at the Food Lion across the street. But what many fail to notice in their quest to save time is a hidden treasure that provided hope for Black Americans in their fight for liberty just after the Civil War.
One can almost hear the voices of time passing through the tiny confines of the Little England Chapel.
Few know about this beacon of hope for African Americans following the Civil War, built in the late 1870s by students from what is now Hampton University.
But Rev. Frank Belton, president of the Newtown Improvement and Civic Club, which maintains the chapel, is on a mission to tell the story of how Black Americans built a vibrant community inspired by the lessons learned at the Little England Chapel.
“You come to know God through Sunday school. You have services where you come together, but you’re educated through Sunday school. I can only imagine that they came together and wanted to learn because, you know, at that time, Black people could not be educated. The white race did not want you to become educated, so the only way you could come together was in a church Sunday school setting,” Belton said.
The chapel began as a Sunday school in the years shortly after it was built between 1878 and 1880. According to documents filed with the National Register of Historic Places, the chapel was first “built by students of Hampton Institute, the famous Black teacher-training college founded by Northern missionaries in 1868.” The documents name Daniel F. Cock, a white missionary from New York, as the person who donated the land to the students. The documents also call the Little England Chapel “the only known black missionary chapel in the commonwealth.”
A shallow creek bed borders the chapel on the east. It was a chief means of transportation in the 19th century by which newly-freed slaves and their descendants came by boat for Sunday services.
There are also accounts that paint a vibrant spiritual life of a people just tasting the promise of freedom. One such story appears in the 1995 publication of Virginia Landmarks of Black History compiled by Calder Loth, where a parishioner recalled chapel activities:
“I remember the Christmas parties, being served hot chocolate, preaching and praying of the men, being on the ‘Mourner’s Bench,’ the pealing of the bell, the teachers arriving in the shiny black ‘Chariot’ drawn by two large white horses, and especially Mr. Johnson preaching and Mr. Glymph praying.”
Worshippers graced the Little England Chapel until 1989. Three years later, the community led a major restoration.
Now, Belton wants the world to see how Black Christians professed their faith in trying times.
“They were up against a lot of great odds, and those odds were definitely against them, but they persevered. And I believe it was because of the will of God. Their spirit is still looking over this place, saying ‘What are you doing with it now? What are you doing with it now?'”
Belton is hoping others join the quest to bring more attention to this snippet of American history that helped educate newly freed slaves so they could claim their place in our nation’s rich story.
Reserve a tour of the Little England Chapel by calling 757-472-8001