Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists uncover original foundation of First Baptist Church

Williamsburg

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeologists have uncovered what they believe to be the remains of the first permanent structure of one of the nation’s oldest Black churches.

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The newly identified structure, dating to the early 1800s, is a 16- by 20-foot brick building foundation that sits alongside a brick paving and on top of a layer of soil near the intersection of Nassau and Francis streets.

“We always hoped this is what we’d find,” said Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology. “Now we can move forward to better understand the footprint of the building. Is it the only structure on the site? What else was around it? What did it look like? How was it being used? This is really only the beginning.”

In addition to the structure, archaeologists uncovered an 1817 coin and a straight pin under the paving that indicates that the foundation was constructed sometime in the first quarter of the 19th century.

These findings are consistent with 1818 tax records that suggest the congregation was worshipping on the site in a building known as the Baptist Meeting House – their first permanent structure.

“It feels fantastic. It feels relief to know we’ve found it and can expand excavation so we can learn about the building so we can [make a] reconstruction. But, there’s a lot of excitement to convey that to the church, to the congregation, and descendants to know we’ve not found it and can put it back on the landscape,” Gary said.

The remains of at least 25 human burials were also discovered. A community meeting is scheduled for Oct. 30 for the descendant community to discuss the next steps and make decisions regarding the investigation of the burial sites.

“The early history of our congregation, beginning with enslaved and free Blacks gathering outdoors in secret in 1776, has always been a part of who we are as a community. To see it unearthed — to see the actual bricks of that original foundation and the outline of the place our ancestors worshipped — brings that history to life and makes that piece of our identity tangible. After 245 years, this is a reason to truly celebrate,” said the Rev. Dr. Reginald F. Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church.

Officials say the remains of First Baptist’s original structure have been buried for 165 years, first under the foundation of a brick church building constructed in 1856 after the first church was destroyed by a tornado, and later under a parking lot after Colonial Williamsburg bought the site in the 1950s.

“Colonial Williamsburg is committed to telling a more complete and inclusive story of the men and women who lived, worked and worshipped here during our country’s formative years,” said Cliff Fleet, president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “The history of this congregation is a story that deserves to be at the forefront of our interpretation and education efforts, and we are honored to play a part in bringing that story to light.”

In 1956, the church was relocated to 727 Scotland Street.

“245 years of continuous worship from the time the slaves organized at the Greenspring Plantation in 1776 up through Racoon Chase, Nassau Street, and now Scotland Street,” said Connie Matthews-Harshaw, president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation and a member of First Baptist Church.

Harshaw hopes what was found here will help tell that more complete story Fleet talked about.

“Half the story is the untold story. We have to do a better job of integrating our history. It’s no Black history or white history. It’s American history,” she said.

The announcement comes as the church kicks off a month-long 245th-anniversary celebration.

Harshaw hopes the dig will inspire others to uncover their own stories in their communities.

“Sometimes when you stop and have a moment to think about it, it takes your breath away because it is so much larger,” she said. “When you think about the fact Thomas Jefferson had not even drafted the bill in Virginia for religious freedom, there were these Black people in Virginia exercising their right to praise and worship how they wanted.”

“A lot of our history has been buried in the soil of this country, made invisible. I’m hoping when we tell this story, people will get a glimpse that we have been part of this country,” Davis said. “We have been part of the buildup of this country and we need to do a better job with race relations and protecting democracy. I think when people really know the history, they’ll have more respect for one another and the contributions of a people.”

Excavation of the Nassau Street site will continue weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., weather permitting, as part of a multi-year project seeking information needed to accurately reconstruct the earliest version of the church’s first permanent structure, surrounding landscape and topography; to locate burials; and to learn about the worship experience of the church’s early congregants.

On Oct. 9, First Baptist’s celebration begins with a premiere screening of “History Half Told is Untold” at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg – Hennage Auditorium. Click here to get tickets.

Also on Oct. 9, the community is invited for a behind-the-scenes tour of the First Baptist excavation site from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

On Oct. 10, the church will celebrate its anniversary on the front lawn of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg starting at 11 a.m. The First Baptist Church Choir will join the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra String Ensemble for the event. Rev. Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd will deliver the keynote address.

On Oct. 30 at 10 am, the First Baptist Church Nassau Street Steering Committee will host a descendants meeting for an update about the archaeological site and to discuss the next steps. It will be held at Bruton Heights’ Lane Auditorium. It’s open to the public.

On Nov. 13, the month-long celebration will conclude with a Black-Tie Gala at the Williamsburg Lodge. Actor, producer, and humanitarian Danny Glover will co-host the event along with the Let Freedom Ring Foundation. Jennifer Holliday will perform. For tickets, call 757-585-2146.

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