WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — Nearly $3 million in funding will go to Colonial Williamsburg to help support research and interpretation at the first permanent site of the city’s historic First Baptist Church.

The award includes a $2.5 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to help the phase 2 efforts to uncover the history behind one of the nation’s oldest Black churches on South Nassau Street.

A statement released by Colonial Williamsburg says that this month, archaeologists led by First Baptist Church’s congregation and descendants launched a second, 18-month phase of excavation at the site that began in 2020. 

Phase 1 excavation uncovered brick foundations north of and beneath the 1856 structure, and structural wooden post-holes dating as far back as the 1700s.

The statement says that archaeologists will return to the location of two potential human burials west of the church’s 1856 foundations to determine how many people may be buried there to continue the search for evidence of the church’s original permanent, pre-1818 structure. 

First Baptist Church, its Let Freedom Ring Foundation, and Colonial Williamsburg announced grant funding and individual gifts that support phase 2 research and site interpretation, including generous support from:

  1. Lilly Endowment Inc. through its Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative. The $2.5 million grant will support both research and programming to interpret the site’s history.
  2. The Ford Foundation, with a grant of $250,000 to support continued archaeological research and programming.
  3. The Richard S. Reynolds Foundation, which has awarded a grant of $100,000 for continued archaeological research.
  4. Multiple individual donors, including a $100,000 anonymous gift from two friends of history.

The congregation and descendant community of First Baptist Church — founded secretly in 1776 by free and enslaved Blacks — hopes to pursue forensic investigation of possible graves and historical research.

The discovery will hopefully help to possibly identify any individuals interred, or to determine relationships to living descendants, and to ensure proper memorialization.

The church, which today worships at 727 Scotland Street, has named the site Historic First Baptist Church – Nassau Street.

“This important work to uncover the history of Historic First Baptist – Nassau Street and to present a story, in what we would imagine to be the voices of the free and enslaved African Americans who were brave enough to assemble and worship, could not have come at a better time in our history,” said Pastor Rev. Reginald F. Davis.

“We are facing, yet again, a time in our nation when we must step up – and step out – to lead the important conversation on race and unity with the hope that we will understand clearly that we are all members of the human race.”

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