Colonial Williamsburg helps clean up historic Black cemetery


WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is helping a historic Black church clean up its cemetery.

Oak Grove Baptist Church is one of the older Black churches in the community. Colette Roots grew up attending the church and visited the cemetery off Rochambeau Drive near Interstate 64 with her mother.

“From the age of 10, my mother always brought me out here four times a year to upkeep the cemetery,” she said.

Roots says many of her relatives are buried there including her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

So, when she took her 96-year-old uncle, who is also a deacon in the church, to visit the cemetery on Mother’s Day, the two were dismayed by downed trees.

Roots decided to do something about it by raising money to clean up. She reached out to Colonial Williamsburg about getting help.

The rest is history.

“We are thanking God right now and we’re so excited about the blessing,” she said.

The foundation donated $40,000 and is leading the project to clean up the cemetery.

“Our mission is to tell America’s enduring story. We want to tell the full story. That starts right here in our community with our neighbors,” said Alison Woodard, who is the real estate service associate for Colonial Williamsburg.

The foundation owns the land surrounding the cemetery and shares a driveway with it.

In 1901, the land was bought by members of the church and Oak Grove Baptist was built on the property. In 1914, the congregation moved to another building on Waller Mill Road, where it still holds services today. The congregation continued to use the cemetery.

In 1943, the U.S. Government took the land to develop Camp Peary.

“In 1975, the government and Colonial Williamsburg did a property exchange. The government wanted property that Williamsburg owned to develop [the] Colonial Parkway so we did a property swap. That’s how we acquired the cemetery and about 213 acres around it,” Woodard said.

In 2003, Colonial Williamsburg gifted the land back to Oak Grove.

“I can’t describe how it feels. It’s like a high you never want to come back down from,” said Roots about the project.

The project will include removing trees along Rochambeau Drive to make it easier to see the entrance of the cemetery. Woodard says the project should be completed by the end of the year and is energized about working with the community.

“We want to inspire people with our story. That’s what happened. It’s been exciting to see how this has gone from clean up project to the church rediscovering its history, the people getting together, getting energized to collect their stories to tell them. That’s what Colonial Willliamsburg is all about,” she said.

Oak Grove is also raising donations to help make repairs at their church.

Virginia Walker, who is the president of the usher board, says they need to install a french drain and baptismal pool, restore the bell and bell tower, add a handicap bathroom, fix windows, replace the air conditioning unit, repair the blacktop in the parking lot, and build a fellowship hall.

To learn more about Oak Grove, click here.

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