Colonial Williamsburg archaeological project hopes to tell story of historic Black church

Williamsburg

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — An archaeological project in Colonial Williamsburg is hoping to tell a story centuries in the making.

Although the First Baptist Church is now located a few minutes from the Colonial Williamsburg area, its roots were planted just a block from the old cobblestone-lined road of Duke of Gloucester Street.

“This is the site of one of, if not, the oldest Black churches in the country,” said Jack Gary, who is the director of archaeology and landscaping for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Crews have been busy at the site on Nassau Street since the fall, digging up the land, which until recently was a parking lot.

But before the plot was covered in pavement, it was the place where the First Baptist congregation worshipped from around the 1770s to the 1950s.

“We’ve gotten multiple layers at this site,” Gary said. “We’ve got an earlier building that may be the earliest church building. We have the 19th-century church, which stood for 100 years, that church was worshipped in. Then, we have the burials as well,” he said.

The burials and other artifacts were found during Phase 1 of the project.

Phase 2 kicked off earlier this year and has nearly $3 million in donor support to continue on to find what else lays underneath.

Gary says a lot can be learned here and not just from the objects they find.

“There’s a lot of stories that can be told about this property and church, and the one I come back to is the courage needed by this group of people, who founded this church and to be able to talk about that courage and the people in this site. We’re talking about a group of people in 1776, who were not only defying the Anglican Church, but probably defying their masters to worship how they wanted to worship. For that to continue on and still have that congregation today, that’s an American story,” he said.

It’s an American story the church has actively tried to tell over the years.

Connie Harshaw, who is a member of the church and president of the organization, Let Freedom Ring, says the church’s history ministry has worked to tell it for 40 years.

She’s excited about the project and what it could mean not only for the community, but the country.

“It’s American history,” she said. “I like to think of February as Black History Month, but we want to think beyond February. We want to continue representing a population here in Colonial Williamsburg. We want to be an example of the nation.”

At the foundation of the church, freed and enslaved Blacks made up 52% of the population, according to Harshaw.

She says it’s that story they’re hoping to dig up and tell for a more inclusive American history story — which hasn’t always been told.

“It’s pretty compelling. We like to say we are continuing to make history. This is one of the, what we say is, historical justice projects where we are looking at the entire story of the country, not just the Anglo perspective but also the inclusive African America perspectives, ” she said. “We want to know what they lived like, what they did. We do know that First Baptist was founded here by free and enslaved with the help of Jessie Cole, the townsman who donated the land on this site.”

Harsaw says the other part of the story they want to tell isn’t something they can find in the dirt.

“Just the fact there was American citizens, who had the least to be happy about, to be joyful about. They were enslaved but they had faith, amazing faith. That’s a miracle in itself. So just to study that and find out what was it that made these people have hope that something in this country would one day be right for them. That’s a story in itself,” she said.

The project is one and a half years. Archaeologists are looking for remains of the original church to possibly recreate it in the future.

Gary says they will also continue to look for other burials at the site to commemorate them properly.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is using archaeology to help tell the full story of what happened in history and Gary believes that sites like First Baptist can help people have difficult discussions about the past to move forward.

“This is a space and to be able to use archaeology to have conversations, that’s what keeps us coming back every day,” he said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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