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In 2004, I took a trip with my Grandma down to Wytheville, VA. Her ancestors were once slaves for the white families nearby, her mother Addie Johnson was born there, and Grandma’s Aunts Ossie & Leon still both live within a block of each other. Not far from Wytheville, in an area I have seen called Red Bluff, Ivanhoe and Piney, in Wythe County is the Red Bluff church
Red Bluff AME Church, 1996

When we visited in 1996, it still had no indoor restrooms, being serviced by two outhouses in the back. It was heated by a wood-burning stove. We were able to attend Sunday services there in 1996, and sitting in those handcarved benches, imagining the times my ancestors had gathered and worshiped there was a heady feeling. My GGG Grandfather, Charles Sayles was one of the founders of the church in 1885.
Red Bluff AME Sign

One of Grandma’s cousins, Ben Sayles, is the caretaker at the church and also cares for the cemetary. When we last visited in 2005, he was directing some Boy Scouts in the work of restoring it. When we have come to visit, Aunt Ossie calls Ben and he meets us to show us around and visit. He pointed out the grave sites of my GGG Grandparents, Charles & Phoebe Sayles, which are unmarked plots, but where the ground had sunken in over their old wooden caskets. Phoebe was born into slavery, and very likely was a child of her mother’s master. Researching her life led me to confront the records of slavery, with a list of slave sexes and ages, and finally, a household inventory where she was listed in the taxable property of her master’s estate. Seeing her grave left me feeling so moved. The layout of the graves on the ground did not line up in any way with the building, making me think perhaps the building site had moved in the past. And generations from now, their gravesites will completely vanish, if the ground hasn’t been leveled already.

Charles & Phoebe (Sanders) Sayles Gravesite
Their daughter Elizabeth Sayles Johnson is buried there nearby.
Hampton & Elizabeth (Sayles) Johnson Headstone

Grandma’s mother Addie Jane Stewart is also buried there, although her maiden name, Addie Johnson is etched on the headstone. (sorry, no pic!). Aunt Ossie remembered her casket being driven to the church by horse and carriage (and I can only imagine the ride, having ridden those country roads by car myself.)

This church can be found at one of the stops called Piney on the African American Driving Tour of Wythe County, Virginia..

The Red Bluff Church looks completely different now, having had a new entry addition put on the front with indoor restrooms, and a heating system.
Ben Sayles & Mary Gwyn, Red Bluff Church, 2005
Although the church was improved by the efforts and desires of the congregation, and I’m sure they are glad for it, I was sad when I saw it. Maybe by living next door to Ocean Grove, an entire town that is part of the National Register for Historic Places because of it’s meticulously restored Victorian Homes, I have gotten spoiled expecting that historic places MUST be kept true to their original beauty. But I’m sure the church family that worships at Red Bluff celebrated their renovations. I am just so happy I was able to get pictures of Red Bluff in its old form when I did.

One Response to “Red Bluff AME Church Cemetary (and the headstones that aren't there)”

  1. on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:04 pm CECELIA BALDRIDGE

    I attended my family reunion father’s side (Howard & Austin) in July of 1987 and in 1987 in Wytheville. My father was Melvin Howard. I remember the church and took a picture of it with my son and cousin standing in front of it. Also took several photos of the head stones and markers of the Howard’s. I knew a few Sayles family members that moved to Cleveland, Ohio. I would love to hear from anyone from whatever family is connected to the surnames: Howard, Lumpkins, Henderson, Austin, etc. So glad to have found this site.

    Thank you!
    Cecelia (Howard) Baldridge
    Feb. 2011

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