John Brown: His family and his legacy

There’s a section of grass surrounded by an asphalt parking lot behind Oak Grove Baptist Church on Beulah Road.  Deep beneath the sod lay John H. Brown and a number of his descendants.

A man of color, Mr. Brown became a free man in 1863.  While legally and physically able to leave the plantation of G.F. Goode, Brown stayed on working the farm and growing tobacco, evidently fond of the man who was once his master.  

Goode died in December of 1870, and in his will he stated his intention to sell Brown 85 acres of land.  Brown purchased the land for $85 plus a yearly tithe of 80 percent profit from the tobacco he grew.  If Brown was unable to meet his obligation, the land would revert back to the original owner.  Over the years much of the acreage was sold.  Oak Grove Baptist Church owns 62 acres of the original 85 which was purchased from Branches Baptist Church in 1970.  Today, one acre remains in the family with a home where Virginia Brown Clarke, granddaughter of John H. Brown, lived until her death in May at the age of 100.

A granite monument marks the family plot behind Oak Grove. The church has preserved the site where 12 graves – descendents of John Brown – are interred and now their memory is preserved. The church will have a service dedicating the monument and honor the family on Sunday, Aug. 7 at 10:30 a.m.

The church’s historian, Tom Lloyd, completed the majority of the research on the Brown family.  He said preserving the Brown family history was a way to preserve the history of their church.  Lloyd said he is addicted to Ancestry.com, and over the last 10 years has done extensive research on his family as well as his wife’s family.  

“It [the Brown family history] is one of the most worthwhile projects I have ever worked on,” Lloyd said.  “The family was well respected in Chesterfield County.”  

His wife Teresa is a member of the history committee at Oak Grove which includes Janice Russ and Melissa Carroll.  The committee pushed the project through and brought it to fruition.  

“We are just happy to share their legacy and honor the family,” Mrs. Lloyd said.  “I didn’t want the younger generation [in our church membership] to lose this history.  There has always been a grassy plot, and the stone is to finalize the memory of the family.  We are marking this for future generations.”

Lloyd has also been able to put a scrapbook together of the Brown family’s history through photos and family papers donated by Zina Johnson, executor of the estate of Virginia Brown Clarke, which will be part of the church’s archives.

Buried in the cemetery are John H. Brown (1838-1905) and his wife Fibby Johnson Brown (1839-1906.)  Their children, Cora Brown (1885-1900), Frank Brown (1890-1891), Thomas Brown (1884-1885), Alvin Thomas Brown (1882-1883), Peter Brown (1887-1943) and  Edith Brown (1912-1943), daughter of Peter and Anna R. Brown.  Also interred in the cemetery are four graves that have not been identified.  

“After exhaustive research, there was not enough supporting data for the church to establish their identity,” said Lloyd.  “This land carries memories as well as great sadness due to the loss of four young children, Cora, at the age of five; Frank, Alvin and Thomas were all one-year-old when they passed.  These four children rest in the family cemetery on our [the church’s] property.  The last recorded burial at Oak Grove was in December of 1943, when Edith Brown was killed in a traffic accident at the age of 31.”

Until her death, Virginia Brown Clarke was the oldest living descendant.  She was one of nine children born to Peter and Annie Brown.  She married Robert Henry Clarke and they lived in the old home place with her mother, Annie Brown, until it burned in 1976.  While some ancestors died young, in later years Annie Brown lived to be 96 and died in 1986. Robert Clarke died in 1984.  They, along with Virginia, are buried in the Maury Street Cemetery in Richmond.

Rochelle Clarke, Virginia’s granddaughter and Zini Johnson, whose mother was Mary, sister of Virginia, remember large family gatherings at the old home place.  Zini Johnson would spend her summers at her grandparents.  

“It was a big old house,” Johnson said.  “It had a formal living room with a piano, formal dining room, a breakfast room, kitchen and a big wraparound porch.  There was an upstairs with two bedrooms and a bedroom downstairs.”  

Every Sunday family would visit.  “During the summer there were always a lot of people over, 30 or 40,” Johnson said.  “It was a big family with lots of cousins.”  She said there would always be fried chicken and macaroni and cheese.

A pear tree remains in the front yard close to the base of the original front porch. Clarke and Johnson remember a lot of different fruit trees on the property and grape vines which when harvested made a lot of great pies for the Sunday gatherings and wine for the elders.  

Clarke remembers crabbing at the beach with her grandmother and returning home and cooking the crabs in a big pot on the porch and enjoying the bounty late into the night. “We would fish all day and come home and cook them that night.”  

Johnson also remembers the fish feast.  “I missed the cookouts at the park.  That’s what we called it, the Park [the area in the back of the house].”  
“Our family is so small now,” said Clarke.  “There may be 20 [that live in the area] now.”  

“I think it is a wonderful thing they [the church] are doing,” said Johnson.  “We gave the church 25 names for invitations to the dedication, but most of them are elderly. We don‘t know who will make it.”

What they do know, is that their ancestor, who was born 173 years ago as a slave, worked as a trusted member of the plantation for 25 years, was freed by the General Assembly in Richmond at the height of the Civil War in April, 1863 and was a man of great honesty and superior trust.  He and his descendants may be gone but they are not forgotten. Pastor Andrew Rist will lead the dedication ceremony.  

“The church was in full support of the recognition of the legacy of John Brown and his family and the work of our history team,” Pastor Rist stated by email.  “The monument placed at the cemetery was paid for by the church. This Sunday, it will be my privilege to conduct the service of recognition entitled ‘Stones of Remembrance.’ We must always seek to honor and remember the legacy of those who have gone before us.  Oak Grove Baptist church is here today, in part because of the legacy of John Brown and his family.  Therefore, we consider it a privilege and an honor to acknowledge the legacy of the Brown family.”

Oak Grove Baptist Church is located at 3801 Beulah Rd.  For more information, call 275-7807.

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