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Virginia Beach parish creates scholarship honoring enslaved woman once owned by the church

Members of Old Donation Episcopal Church established a scholarship to honor a woman named Rachal once enslaved by the church. The church is shown June 6, 2024, in Virginia Beach.
Photo by Cianna Morales
Members of Old Donation Episcopal Church established a scholarship to honor a woman named Rachal once enslaved by the church. The church is shown June 6, 2024, in Virginia Beach.

Members of Old Donation Episcopal Church wanted to make amends for the church’s role in slavery. They decided the scholarship in Rachal’s name was one way to do it.

When a Virginia Beach congregation discovered their church’s role in the history of slavery, they wanted to make amends.

“We contributed to some of the problems. We benefited from some of the problems,” said rector Bob Randall.

“Therefore we have a responsibility to make a difference in a positive way.”

Seeking atonement, Randall and other members of Old Donation Episcopal Church established a scholarship in the name of a woman, Rachal, the church once enslaved and who appears in vestry records dating from the 1700s.

Modern-day parishioners chose to establish a scholarship fund at Norfolk State University because it’s a local historically Black university.

The church made an initial gift of $25,000 in 2021, and has since continued fundraising efforts. Randall said he expects to grow the scholarship fund to $45,000 from donations at next week’s Juneteenth celebration and service.

The scholarship is an endowed fund, so it will be awarded to a local student enrolling at Norfolk State in perpetuity, said Philip Sherrill, director of leadership and major giving at the university.

Old Donation Episcopal Church has stood stalwart at or near its current location for nearly 400 years. The church, originally known as Lynnhaven Parish, was founded by an English colonist named Adam Thoroughgood in 1637.

Buildings there have changed over the centuries. An original structure was replaced by a second church in 1692. The current parish building off of Witchduck Road was built in the style of a colonial church in 1736. A single baptismal font, on a plinth of red stone, is the one surviving artifact from the original church, Randall said.

The building has a capacity of 200, but the congregation is roughly 800 people — and has grown in recent years since the pandemic. The congregation, largely white, has also become more racially diverse over the years.

Randall thinks people are attracted to the church because it’s active in the community, working to do some good. That carries on a legacy from the church’s founding — it historically established a school for orphan boys and has had programs to help the poor.

But other aspects of the church’s history have recently come into sharper focus.

Dan Ries, a longtime member of the church and volunteer on several church committees, has plunged into research on Old Donation’s part in slavery. He started with Sacred Ground, a curriculum from the Episcopal Church intended to teach about the nation’s history of race and racism. He has led others at Old Donation in taking the class as well.

Lynnhaven Parish’s practice of owning and profiting from enslaved people was not unique for the time period. Individual slaveholders were common, but institutions — many of them philanthropic or created for the public good — enslaved people too.

The Anglican Church, later the Episcopal Church, established parishes in the Virginia colony and included slaves as part of the glebe, the land and housing used by the minister, to entice professional ministers to resettle from England in the colonies. Other denominations began enslaving people, as well as schools and colleges, such as William & Mary.

Ries has studied vestry records and looked into historical documents from the Library of Virginia in an effort to learn more about Old Donation’s past. He has identified 286 enslaved people associated with family names that were part of the Lynnhaven Parish from the late 1600s through the early 1800s. Of those people, 79 were children younger than 15.

One was Rachal, who was owned by the church. The decision to sell her and use the proceeds to buy another slave is recorded in minutes from 1767:

“Agreed & Resolved by this vestry that the Church wardens sell the Negro wench Rachal belonging to the Parish & that the Money Ariseing thereby be applied towards buying another Negro.”

Ries noted that institutional slavery was sometimes more cruel than ownership of slaves by individuals — there was not a single person or individual with a vested interest in the enslaved person’s wellbeing, there was maybe no “institutional conscience,” Ries said.

In response to this history, the church has embarked on several efforts to heal and reconcile. The Rachal scholarship is one. As part of the relationship with Norfolk State, the church hosted the university’s choir last September. Randall gave an invocation and benediction at a commencement ceremony. A Juneteenth observance will be held Sunday, June 23.

One document Ries found recently is a free person affidavit, affirming a woman named Rachel was freed by John Thoroughgood, likely a descendent of the founder Adam Thoroughgood.

The name on the affidavit is spelled differently, and Ries hasn’t been able to confirm they’re the same woman. But he continues to search documents to see if he can make the connection.

In an email, Ries wrote, “I hope and pray she lived to experience freedom.”

The world changes fast.

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