Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum in Virginia that continues to reckon with its past storytelling about the country’s origins and the role of Black Americans, has unearthed the brick foundation of one of the nation’s oldest Black churches.
In 1776, free and enslaved Black people founded the First Baptist Church. They first met in secret in fields and under trees, defying laws that prohibited African Americans from congregating.
The church had its first building in the former colonial capital by 1818. A tornado destroyed the 16-foot-by-20-foot (5-meter-by-6-meter) structure in 1834. The Second Baptist Church, built in 1856, stood for over a century. However, Colonial Williamsburg, which was expanding at the time, purchased the property in 1956 and turned it into a parking lot.
First Baptist Pastor Reginald F. Davis, whose church now stands elsewhere in Williamsburg, described the discovery of the church’s first home as “a rediscovery of a people’s humanity.”
Colonial Williamsburg announced on Thursday that it had discovered the foundation by analyzing layers of soil and artifacts such as a one-cent coin.
Colonial Williamsburg had ignored the stories of colonial Black Americans for decades. In recent years, however, the museum has placed a greater emphasis on African-American history in order to attract more Black visitors.
The museum, which includes over 400 restored or reconstructed buildings, tells the story of Virginia’s 18th century capital. More than half of the 2,000 people who lived in Williamsburg in the late 18th century were African-American, and many were enslaved.
Sharing the stories of Colonial Williamsburg’s residents of color is a relatively new phenomenon. It wasn’t until 1979 that the museum began telling Black stories, and it wasn’t until 2002 that the American Indian Initiative was launched. First Baptist Church has been at the forefront of an effort to reintroduce African Americans to the museum. Colonial Williamsburg’s historic conservation experts, for example, repaired the church’s long-silenced bell several years ago.
Congregants and museum archeologists are now working together to determine the best way to excavate the site and tell the story of First Baptist. The relationship is vastly different from that of the mid-twentieth century.
“Imagine going to this church as a child and riding by and seeing a parking lot… where possibly people you knew and loved are buried,” said Connie Matthews Harshaw, a member of First Baptist. She is also the board president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the history of the church.
Colonial Williamsburg had paid for the land where the church had stood until the mid-1950s, and the costs of First Baptist building a new church had been covered by Colonial Williamsburg. Despite its rich colonial history, the museum failed to tell its story.
The excavation started last year. According to Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology, 25 graves have been located so far based on soil discoloration in areas where a plot was dug. Some congregants, according to Gary, have already expressed an interest in analyzing bones to learn more about the lives of the deceased and to discover familial connections. According to him, some graves appear to predate the construction of the second church.
It’s unclear when the first First Baptist Church was built. Some researchers believe it was already standing when Jesse Cole, a white man who owned the property at the time, offered it to the congregation.
First Baptist is mentioned in tax records for an adjacent property dating back to 1818.
Gary stated that the original foundation was confirmed by analyzing soil layers and artifacts discovered in them. They included an 1817 one-cent coin and copper pins used to keep clothing together in the early 1800s.
Colonial Williamsburg and the congregation hope to rebuild the church in the future.
The excavation, according to Jody Lynn Allen, a history professor at the nearby College of William & Mary, is part of a larger reckoning on race and slavery at historic sites around the world.
Allen, who serves on the board of the First Baptist Church’s Let Freedom Ring Foundation, believes that physical evidence, such as a church foundation, can help people feel more strongly connected to the past.