Historical highway marker dedication in Williamsburg to honor one of America’s first Black preachers

Williamsburg

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — A historic Williamsburg church will dedicate a historic highway marker in honor of its first preacher.

On Sunday, members of First Baptist Church and the community will gather at the intersection of Nassau and Scotland streets, where the marker recognizing Gowan Pamphlet is located.

“This location is very important because the site of our original church is on Nassau and the site of our current church is on Scotland. This is an intersection of our past and our future,” said Connie Matthews Harshaw, who is a member of the church and president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation.

Harshaw says it feels like they’ve come a long way with the dedication of the marker, but they still have a ways to go.

“This is such an amazing start to be excavating the original site, to be currently worshiping in the membership, which is spirit-filled on Scotland Street, but to pay tribute to Gowan Pamphlet,” she said.

Pamphlet became the only ordained Black preacher of any denomination in 1772, according to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The Rev. James Ingram, who is a nation builder at Colonial Williamsburg, says Pamphlet was given permission by his master to be ordained.

Ingram has spent more than 20 years researching and bringing Pamphlet’s story to life for visitors.

“It doesn’t feel like work,” he said. “It feels like a mission, a destination, a journey that was supposed to happen.”

Ingram says he’s waited years to get the historical state highway marker up and credits a number of people for making it happen, including former Colonial Williamsburg Historian Linda Rowe. Rowe died in a boating accident last fall.

Pamphlet’s story of perseverance, especially during a time of institutional slavery, is what Ingram hopes people learn from Pamphlet’s life.

The First Baptist congregation started meeting at a plantation just weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

“They started at the right time in 1776. That’s the War of Independence. You had soldiers joining the Army. British soldiers coming over here to fight. Well, we were starting our Christian army. We were fighting for the same ideals,” he said.

Ingram says Pamphlet was freed in 1793.

By the time the church — which was made up of freed and enslaved Blacks — moved into their original building, 610 people attended the church, according to Ingram.

He says they defied the odds.

Ingram, who has also been a member of the church for three years, says he hopes people who attend Sunday’s dedication leaving knowing more about Pamphlet’s will.

“I hope they will take away the tenacity and the real belief you can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it, but put the work behind it. Never give up,” he said.

First Baptist Church says it will be releasing a documentary in October about their church for its 245th anniversary.

Sunday’s event starts at 2 p.m. and will be limited to 100 guests.

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

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