Behind the scenes of the Alexandria Gazette Packet’s article, “If These Walls Could Talk – Roberts Chapel Methodist Church”.
It is remarkable to research an African American Church’s history that goes back beyond the Civil War. This old Alexandria’s Church has records in old ledge books. One can feel the texture of the old books and see the markings of the old ink quill pen that recorded members’ activities in Church. The near perfect penmanship that once was considered the penmanship of literary individuals is displayed throughout the Church’s ledge books.
In Alexandria, you will find one of the oldest African American’s Methodist Church that has been around since 1832. You will find this Church on Washington Street where the view of Roberts Memorial United Methodist Church (UMC) seems to be tucked behind shady trees that could slightly block your view at 606 South Washington Street. This Church congregation started at Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia prior to the 1830.
The free and enslaved African Americans left Trinity and started their own Church. The Church records of Roberts Memorial UMC speaks of the who’s who among African Americans in early days of Alexandria when the Church was known as Roberts Chapel. The Church has gone through several name changes from Davis Chapel to Roberts Chapel Methodist Church to its present name.
Behind the scenes of the Alexandria Gazette Packet’s article on Conny Gray dated January 2, 2019.
Conny Gray was born around 1863 to Martha and John Gray. Martha was born in 1820s as a free woman. Some of Martha’s other siblings were, Alfred Gray, William H. Gray, the father to Sarah A. Gray of Parker-Gray School and Selina Gray.
In this research, I found that Sarah A. Gray was the first cousin to Conny Gray. Also it is believed that Conny’s father could have been a slave. As early as 1860, Conny’s mother was the head of the household in the 1860 and 1870 censuses. It is possible that Conny’s father was not a freed person in 1860. Conny name was recorded in one of the censuses as Constance. It seems that Conny did not like the name Constance because during his adult life he used the name Conny.
Conny married a well-known teacher, Sarah Derrick(s) whose family was freed prior to the Civil War. Sarah taught at Hallowell School for girls and later was selected as one of the first teachers of Parker-Gray School in 1920.
After the death of Sarah Derrick(s) Gray, local researchers had mistaken her as the person that Parker-Gray was named after. The school was named after Sarah A. Gray who was single and who never married. She was the first cousin to Conny Gray. What Sarah D. Gray and Sarah A. Gray had in common are that both of them taught at Hallowell School for girls and both of them came from free-people-of-color prior to the Civil War.
After those similarities, Sarah A. Gray stands out. She was once the principal of Hallowell School for girls. She came from a prominent family. Her father owned large amounts of real estate and he was a butcher. On the death of her father, it was written in the newspaper that he was one of the wealthiest Negroes in the United States. He left his wealth to his second wife, his daughter and his nephew.
For Private Conny Gray, his surviving descendants are John Gray, Eleanor Gray-Cheeks and others. They were members of Roberts Chapel (known today as Roberts Memorial United Methodist Church).
Behind the Alexandria Gazette story on Laura Missouri Dorsey dated January 11 – 17, 2018.
Several years ago, I visited and interviewed Miss Laura Missouri Dorsey’s second cousin, Mrs. Fayrene Lyles-Richardson in Maryland. In talking with Fayrene, she shared many family pictures of the Lyles and Dorsey families. One particular picture was of two cars in the Lyles family in the early 20th century.
Very few people of colored (African Americans) owned automobiles at that time, but the
Lyles not only had one vehicle, they had two in the family. Also in Fayrene’s collection were many pictures about the family life style. There were summer homes up north, post cards from their vacations in the 1900s – 1950s. There were pictures of their homes in Alexandria, Virginia and in Prince William County, Virginia. In the collection were professional pictures of the Lyles’ brothers at a photographer’s studio and pictures of Laura and her sister, Mary and their mother, Hannah.
As Fayrene and I pored over the pictures, we went back in time to a period when the Lyles and Dorsey family flourished. The public records have documented the life style of the Lyles and Dorsey families in the censuses, tax records, newspaper articles, marriages, death records, church records and pre-civil war documents. Laura Missouri Dorsey and her uncle, Rosier Lyles were educators in the Alexandria Public school system. Laura’s grandfather, Reverend Richard H. Lyles was the pillar of Alexandria’s African American’s Society. He was born free in 1834. Reverend Lyles was a minister at Roberts Chapel in the 19th Century; he taught private school prior to the Civil War; he worked for the Federal Government at the Freedmen Bureau; he was active in Alexandria’s Republican Party; he was a caulker on ships; he owned a business on the wharf; and, he owned a number of properties in Alexandria. He afforded his family many pleasures of life that was found among the white middle class.
The heyday for the Lyles family started prior to the Civil War through the middle of the 20th Century. They regained all their property losses during the Civil War. The Lyles and the Dorsey families left a positive history that will make many Alexandrians eager to learn more about them. Read the article on “Laura Dorsey” in the Alexandria Gazette Packet for January 11 – 17, 2018. You can sign up for a digital copy of the paper at http://www.connectionnewspapers.com/subscribe.