The excavation of the First Baptist Church on Nassau Street continues to make progress in unearthing the story of the church’s early congregants and their worship experience.
This month, Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists launched a second, 18-month phase of excavation.
And more organizations are pitching in to fund the multi-year project, as well. First Baptist Church, the Let Freedom Ring Foundation and Colonial Williamsburg announced grant funding and individual gifts last week that support the Phase 2 research and site interpretation effort.
Colonial Williamsburg announced the receipt of a sum of nearly $3 million in philanthropic support.
Lilly Endowment Inc., through its Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative, gave a $2.5 million grant that will support both research and programming to interpret the site’s history.
Other donors include the Ford Foundation, who awarded a grant of $250,000 to support continued archaeological research and programming, and the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation, which has awarded a grant of $100,000 for continued archaeological research.
Multiple individual donors also pitched in, including a $100,000 anonymous gift from “two friends of history,” according to a news release from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
In phase 2 of the excavation, archaeologists will work on the location of two potential human burials west of the church’s 1856 foundations. They will determine how many people may be buried there while collaborating with the William & Mary Institute for Historical Biology.
Archaeologists will also continue the search for evidence of the church’s original permanent, pre-1818 structure. Phase 1 of the excavation uncovered older brick foundations north of and underneath the 1856 structure, including structural wooden post-holes dating back to the 1700s.
“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,” Rev. Dr. Reginald F. Davis, pastor of the Historic First Baptist Church, said in a statement from the news release.
According to the release, the congregation and descendant community of First Baptist Church “hope to pursue forensic investigation of possible graves and historical research to possibly identify any individuals interred, or to determine relationships to living descendants, and to ensure proper memorialization.”
Colonial Williamsburg first investigated the South Nassau Street property in 1957 to determine the existence of any 18th-century structures on the site.
According to the news release, most of the excavators on the team were Black men, and their identities are continuing to be investigated in order to recognize them for their work.
“What we’ve uncovered so far not only is exciting in what we’ve found, but also in the stories that we can attribute to these structures, burials and artifacts,” said Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology. “We’re captivated by what more we can learn about this historic church and its trailblazing members over the next 18 months.”
During Phase 1 of the excavation, conducted from Sept. 8 to Nov. 6, archaeologists found more than 12,000 individual artifacts, including an inkwell, pottery fragments, glass bottles, architectural materials and personal items like doll fragments, buttons and coins.
Also uncovered were the foundations of the 1856 church last excavated in 1957, foundations of the 1893 annex to the 1856 church, and foundations for a planned 1950s expansion of the 1856 church. Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists processed artifacts during November and December.
The historical site may also be a part of a new project collaboration by the City of Williamsburg, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and more local organizations.
In December, City of Williamsburg Mayor Douglas Pons announced plans to establish an African American Heritage Trail commemorating sites prominent in local and national Black history during his biennial State of the City address.
Recently, the City of Williamsburg’s Board of Zoning Appeals approved changes to Colonial Williamsburg’s P4 parking lot, now accessible from South Henry Street and Francis Street West, including permanent removal of 15 spaces, 11 of them to allow preservation and interpretation of the historic church site.
“We are always seeking opportunities to more inclusively display Williamsburg’s rich history,” Pons said in a statement from the news release. “Now that the City Council has set forth the goal to create an African American Heritage Trail downtown, city staff will begin planning for this project, which aims to better reflect the story of our city.”
“The First Baptist Church is certainly a significant part of that story,” he added.
Excavation of the First Baptist Church-Nassau Street continues weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., weather permitting.
Additional information about the project is available by visiting The Historic First Baptist Church’s website and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s website. You can also follow Colonial Williamsburg Archaeology’s Facebook page.
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