St. John's Baptist Church
St. John's is a generational church located in Orgas, West Virginia, around 30 miles outside of Charleston. It has maintained a generational African American congregation despite economic factors and other considerable obstacles of the last century. In that time there have been three iterations of the church, each moving in location and venue.
Backstory and Context
Steady turnout for weekly services throughout the 1920s to the 1940s services steadily grew, and eventually drew nearly one hundred people. In 1948 construction on a new church, this time located in Highcoal began, and was completed in 1949, this one named St. John's Baptist. The new church was larger and located higher up, safe from floods. The cast iron bell was placed in the steeple and was rang regularly until the early 1960s. In the decade that followed, poor economic factors for the coal companies forced mass layoffs, which affected the African American workers first. Evicted from the company homes, many of them moved to Pittsburgh to work the steel mills, or North Carolina to work in shipping yards. The population was left as a fraction of what it once was, but the members continued to return each week.
Over the next half century, many of the remaining members, now elders of the church, had passed away, and the congregation was dwindling. In 2007, Massey Energy, looking to mine the area, worked out a deal to purchase the land and church. The current Minister of the Church, and decedent of an early reverend of Garrison Baptist, volunteered a piece of land passed throughout his family. Construction finished in the summer of 2008 along with display for the symbolic cast iron bell in the front lawn. The new location, Orgas, West Virginia, provided a central location for those remaining members, allowing for an easier commute. Sitting at the end of a suburban lane, and next to the highway, St. John's Baptist looks to have come full circle from its early beginnings.
Being located on donated land, and having a Reverend Saunders at the helm, history almost seems to be repeating itself. No matter the case, the church stands as a socioeconomic reminder for not only the heritage of a coal mining community, but the resiliency of an African American demographic in a primarily white region of West Virginia.
J. Saunders, Personal Interview, April 22, 2017.