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By Rena Malai | Photos by Mark Gilvey
On any weekday morning, the area around Lee Highway and Carver Road in Gainesville looks like a typical Prince William suburb. Cars ride along in rush hour, folks walk dogs, school buses stop and go.
What many may not realize is the triangular-shaped section between these roads and Old Carolina Road, was a close-knit African-American community in the mid-19th century, founded by emancipated slaves after the Civil War. Many purchased land,creating homes and families that revolved around a dance hall and the still-existing Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.
The Settlement Community, as it was known, slowly phased out over time. Residents moved, and the area shifted and evolved. But The Culture Cup, a cafe located right where the Settlement Community used to be, remembers and gives residents a taste of the area’s past with coffee, culture, memorabilia, and homemade
Brewing up History
Prince William resident Nikki Joy Brown, owner of The Culture Cup, grew up in Baltimore where she performed in the theater and was surrounded by art, theater, and music.
“I performed theater, sang, danced, and was involved in lots of community events,” said Brown. “I’ve always been inspired by African-American history, art, and culture.”
That inspiration followed her when she moved to Prince William. She began researching and learning about the Settlement Community and realized it wasn’t necessarily common knowledge. “It became a passion for me to share that information, and pay homage to local African American art and culture,” said Brown.
“I’ve always loved coffee, and it naturally sparks conversation.”
Brown worked with several descendants of the Settlement Community to create a dedicated wall in The Culture Cup full of historical artifacts, so customers have the opportunity to learn about what’s behind this piece of Gainesville.
“It was important for me to create this space, and give people the opportunity to learn about the history that’s right in their backyards,” said Brown. “Many people (of the Settlement Community) came here for refuge and to start a new life for themselves.”
She says quite a few people are in awe and surprised when they walk into The Culture Cup and learn that there used to be a thriving African-American community right where they now enjoy coffee.
“I would say some people are very surprised to know how old this part of Gainesville is and that parts of the Settlement Community, like the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, still exist,” Brown said. “I want all our friends and neighbors who come here to continue to spread the word of what once was.”
Heart, Soul, and Specialty Lattes
The coffee drinks do the talking at The Culture Cup. The signature Settlement latte, with house-made brown sugar sage syrup, is recommended by Brown for newcomers and regulars alike.
Other coffee creations are named to honor African-American heroes and pioneers, like the Maple Morrison latte, named after author Toni Morrison.
“When you order the Maple Morrison latte, you also get little notes of wisdom along with your coffee,” Brown said.
There is much intentionality behind the creation of The Culture Cup, from the decor, to the drinks, to the vibe. Brown wanted to create a space where people feel welcome and want to stay a while.
And also, learn something new.
“When people come here, I want them to be inspired by the community and have the opportunity to connect with others, from all cultures,” said Brown.
Her whole family contributes to The Culture Cup, including its menu. One of Brown’s favorites is her uncle’s pound cake, made fresh, with plenty of butter and love.
Other menu items include specialty sandwiches, made fresh to order, family made baked goods, hot chocolates and juices for younger customers, and vegan items like avocado toast and dairy-free milk substitutes for coffee drinks.
Brown sees events like open-mic night and a jazz brunch with local musicians coming soon. Her colleague Jennifer Roberts organizes regular book events, featuring local authors. Every Friday, The Culture Cup hosts a story time for the community, where students are welcome to attend along with their parents.
“I feel like it’s come full circle from my childhood, with everything at The Culture Cup,” said Brown. “I’ve always dreamed of things, but I didn’t think I would run and own a cafe. The descendants of the Settlement are still fighting to preserve their land, and I feel The Culture Cup helps to reignite that passion and platform for preserving.”
Follow them on Instagram @theculturecupva for events, dates, and times.
The Culture Cup is located at 8002 Crescent Park Drive in Gainesville and is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. The Culture Cup is closed on Sundays.
Rena Malai is a freelance writer, covering everything from food to technology. She lives in Prince William.