History of the Land – Alexander Chapel Baptist Church and Cemetery
Tucked upon a hillside in northwest Buncombe County – near the SAHC Community Farm – stands an unassuming structure with an important link to the past. The Alexander Chapel Baptist Church and Cemetery are a testament to the diverse history of the region.
The cemetery provides a permanent resting place for Black residents of Leicester, Alexander, and the surrounding areas who helped rural Buncombe County grow and prosper. Unlike many Black cemeteries that have been forgotten or lie hidden in the mountains, family members of those buried here still remember services and celebrate gatherings held on the property. They say that visiting the church site and cemetery is “going home.”
Efforts to restore and preserve the site are growing, but much remains to be done.
History of the Site
According to a history pamphlet written by DoRothea Goodman Williams in 1984, “The beginnings of the Alexander Chapel Baptist marked the birth of an independent Black denomination in the Leicester Township of Buncombe County. On June 28, 1889, the Trustees of the Colored Missionary Baptist Church were granted a parcel of land by John F. Alexander and wife of Leicester Township. In the deed recorded in the Buncombe County Courthouse, ‘one lot of land which adjoined the land of the Colored District School House’ was sold to the Trustees for one dollar.”
Williams continues, “The Church was thriving in its early years as a result of the sizable Black population… According to the 1900 Census of Leicester Township, there were 131 Black residents. Most of the adults listed their occupations as farmers, washwomen, or day laborers.” Land for the cemetery was conveyed in 1907.
One notable resident buried in the cemetery is Robert Burton Roberts (1859-1943), son of Joseph Roberts and Rosa Carson. Just six years old at the time of emancipation, he grew up to be a farmer and owned about 100 acres at Bert Mountain, off Newfound Road. His granddaughter LaTiece Eggleston recalls, “The mountain was named for him. He’d say he’d ‘rather eat crabapples than be a slave to you or anyone else’ – and he worked for himself, always.” She also remembers, “There was a spring about halfway up the mountain, and grandpa ran a pipe from there all the way to the back of the house. They got all the water they needed for the livestock and themselves from that.” This was LaTiece’s father’s family, from Leicester; her mother’s parents were from Madison and Rutherford Counties and had a farm off Haw Branch Road in Barnardsville.
Their main crop was tobacco, like many families in the region. LaTiece helped with farming, too.
“It was hard in some ways – a hard life and hard work, but also good,” she says. “Kids played all day long on weekends, went to school together, were in the rows and fields together. The girls worked on the farm like the boys did.”
Black community members buried in the cemetery made significant contributions to the prosperity of the region, and their stories are important to the legacy of land and people in the southern Appalachians.
Grieving the passing of her husband in 2015, Annette Penland Coleman took a trip over to the church to visit the graveside of her mother, Ruth Gudger Penland.
“The grass over the graves was waist high,” she remembers. “I was just shocked, and thought, somebody has to do something.” And that someone was Annette. The property had been lovingly used for services and homecomings over the years, but as family members moved out of the area and elders caring for the property aged or passed away, the land and structure fell into disrepair. Annette began coordinating regular mowing at the site and inspired other folks to get involved. With their support, a new sign for the historic church was installed in 2021.
Last year, members of the Jamerson/Penland families visited the site during a reunion. Annette shared a memory written by one of the family members: “The first time I visited the church, I was a little girl visiting my Uncle Glenn and Aunt Gladys. Mama took us to see the church and I was in awe of the structure and pews and history of it all. The last time I visited, as a woman grown, we laid my granny to rest right there by that church. Seeing it still there, standing the test of time and bearing witness to the life of my family, brings a sense of “home” and foundation and roots. Thank you Annette and those who have contributed to that foundation and keeping these memories alive!” ~ Tia, Lisa’s Daughter, Margaret’s Grandaughter.”
Most of the Black families who once lived in the Leicester and Alexander communities have moved out of the area. Support for significant repairs of the building structure and long-term care and maintenance of the cemetery weighs heavily on Annette’s mind.
“We have to do more preservation work on the church, so people can go there, and so that it will be around and the grave sites taken care of in the future,” she says. “Many veterans, particularly WWI veterans, are buried there. These are our family, our people, and they cannot be forgotten.”
Recently, an anonymous donor contributed a matching grant from The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina to help improve the driveway to the site. According to Annette, the original access to the church and cemetery ran alongside the school at a gradual slope. With the school gone, the access had to be rerouted up a steep, curved drive, and maintaining the access has been an ongoing issue. Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy was proud to be the fiscal agent for this grant.
“These are our family, our people, and they cannot be forgotten.” ~ Annette Penland Coleman
Annette Penland Coleman
Annette’s family moved from Leicester when she was six years old. As a student at Stephens Lee High School, she was part of the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality (ASCORE), taking action to desegregate public spaces in Asheville. An active leader in the community, Annette is an honoree of the 2023 Rosa Parks Award of The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County.
Want to Help? Get Involved!
For questions or more information, contact Annette Coleman at (828) 230-0629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or mail Alexander Chapel Baptist Church Cemetery Fund, c/o Annette Coleman PO Box 6082, Asheville, NC 28816.