Remains of a black church found in Colonial Williamsburg
WILLIAMSBURG, Virginia – The brick foundation of one of the oldest black churches in the country was discovered at Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum in Virginia that continues to reflect its past stories of the country’s origins and the role of black Americans.
The First Baptist Church was formed in 1776 by free and enslaved blacks. They first met secretly in fields and under trees in defiance of laws that prevented African Americans from congregating.
In 1818, the church had its first building in the former colonial capital. The 16ft by 20ft (5m by 6m) structure was destroyed by a tornado in 1834.
First Baptist’s second structure, built in 1856, stood there for a century. But a growing Colonial Williamsburg bought the property in 1956 and turned it into a parking lot.
First Baptist pastor Reginald F. Davis, whose church is now located elsewhere in Williamsburg, said the discovery of the church’s first house is “a rediscovery of the humanity of a people.”
“This helps to erase the historical and social amnesia that has afflicted this country for so many years,” he said.
Colonial Williamsburg said Thursday it had located the foundation after analyzing layers of soil and artifacts such as a penny.
For decades, Colonial Williamsburg had ignored the stories of colonial black Americans. But in recent years, the museum has put more and more emphasis on African-American history, while trying to attract more black visitors.
The museum tells the story of the capital of Virginia in the 18th century and includes more than 400 restored or reconstructed buildings. More than half of the 2,000 people who lived in Williamsburg at the end of the 18th century were black – and many were enslaved.
Sharing stories of residents of color is a relatively new phenomenon in Colonial Williamsburg. It wasn’t until 1979 that the museum started telling stories about black people, and not until 2002 that it launched its American Indian Initiative.
First Baptist has been at the center of an initiative to reintroduce African Americans to the museum. For example, historical conservation experts at Colonial Williamsburg repaired the church’s long-silent bell several years ago.
The museum’s devotees and archaeologists are now charting a way forward together on how best to excavate the site and tell the story of First Baptist. The relationship is very different from that of the mid-20th century.
“Imagine being a kid going to this church, walking past and seeing a parking lot… where maybe people you know and love are buried,” said Connie Matthews Harshaw, First Baptist member. She is also chair of the board of directors of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, which aims to preserve the history of the church.
Colonial Williamsburg had paid for the property where the church stood until the mid-1950s and had covered the costs of building a new church by First Baptist. But the museum has failed to tell its story despite its rich colonial history.
“It’s a healing process… to see it be discovered,” Harshaw said. “And the community really came together around it. And I speak in black and white.
Excavations began last year. So far, 25 graves have been located based on soil discoloration in areas where a plot has been dug, according to Jack Gary, director of archeology at Colonial Williamsburg.
Gary said some worshipers have already expressed interest in analyzing the bones to get a better idea of the deceased’s life and uncover family connections. He said some graves appear to predate the construction of the second church.
It is not known exactly when the first First Baptist Church was built. Some researchers have said he may have already been on his feet when offered to the congregation by Jesse Cole, a white man who owned the property at the time.
First Baptist is mentioned in the 1818 tax records for an adjacent property.
Gary said the original foundation was confirmed by analyzing the layers of soil and the artifacts therein. They included a penny from 1817 and copper pins that held early 18th century clothing.
Colonial Williamsburg and the congregation eventually want to rebuild the church.
“We want to make sure we’re telling the story in a proper and accurate way – and that they approve of the way we’re telling that story,” Gary said.
Jody Lynn Allen, professor of history at the nearby College of William & Mary, said the excavations were part of a larger calculation of race and slavery at historic sites around the world.
“It’s not that all of a sudden, like magic, these primary sources appear,” Allen said. “They’ve been in the archives or in people’s basements or attics. But they weren’t considered valuable. “
Allen, who is on the board of the First Baptist’s Let Freedom Ring Foundation, said physical evidence like a church foundation can help people connect more strongly to the past.
“The fact that the church still exists – that it still thrives – that story needs to be told,” Allen said. “People have to understand that there was great resilience in the African American community.”