Tuesday, July 5, 2022

‘We Are Able to Tell Our History’: Colonial Williamsburg to Examine Three Buried at Historic First Baptist Church

New information regarding the excavations and research at the Historic First Baptist Church was revealed Saturday. (WYDaily/Molly Feser)

WILLIAMSBURG — Colonial Williamsburg (CW) will examine three of those buried at the Historic First Baptist Church’s Nassau Street site.

CW and the First Baptist Church’s Let Freedom Ring Foundation announced new information at the Williamsburg Library on Saturday, March 12 regarding excavations and research of the first permanent structure of the Historic First Baptist Church.

Connie Harshaw, president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, said permission from the descendant community was needed to proceed with examining remains of three individuals buried at the site to help determine the race, age and gender of those buried.

Among the audience at the library and via Zoom were members of the descendant community, who unanimously voted for the foundation to proceed with uncovering and examining three individuals buried.

CW first announced the discovery of the foundation of the church’s original site on Nassau and Francis streets in the Historic Area back in October.

During the excavation process, archaeologists have located 33 human burials on the grounds, though it is certain that there are more, CW’s Director of Archeology Jack Gary said.

Archeologists have since uncovered brand new information about the site.

A wine bottle turned upside down was found buried at what was presumably the foot of a burial.

“It’s the only grave so far that we have found that has been marked in any way,” Gary said. “It calls up questions in our mind of whether this is somebody important, as well as the symbolism of the bottle.”

Gary noted that this burial will likely be a candidate for one of the three burials that will be examined as it appears to have some significance.  

During Saturday’s meeting, Gary also revealed that what was previously thought to be a 16 x 20-foot building is actually 32 x 16 feet.

“This is a great piece of information that is allowing us now to start to envision what this structure is going to be like,” Gary said.

Ron Hurst, vice president for museums, preservation, and historic resources, said that archeological evidence shows information that helps the team determine what the building looked like and what was inside, such as where the doors, windows and pulpit were located.

While it was previously believed that white landowner Jesse Cole, who owned the property at the time, had given the congregation the building, Hurst revealed that it now appears that Cole gave the congregation a piece of land and the congregation built their own meeting house.

“This is an important piece of information,” Hurst said. “It speaks to the strength of the congregation.”

Also revealed during the meeting was the discovery of a list of names pulled from the first reel of microfilm for the First Baptist Church at the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library entitled “Baptismal, Memberships and Death: 1865.”

The list, which is described as a record of the First Baptist Church members, was discovered to have close to 1,650 names.

“It was virtually a list of of the ‘who’s who’ in the Black community here in Williamsburg,” Harshaw said.

The list was transcribed by CW archeologists Meredith Poole, Hannah James and Crystal Castleberry and includes baptisms and membership rates ranging from 1865 through 1885, and death rates ranging from 1875 through 1915.

“Seeing all those names really makes these people so much more real,” Poole said.

While discussing the process of examining the remains at the First Baptist Church, Gary said that they chose to start with three as they believe it will give them some baseline answers before they commit to a much larger project.

“Some of those questions we need to answer include: what is the preservation of the remains? Are the skeletal remains even still preserved? Can we confirm that these were members of the congregation and of African descent? When were they interred in the ground?” Gary said. “Three is the number that’s been proposed and we feel that would give us a sample that would allow us to make decisions going forward.”

Dr. Raquel Fleskes, anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, said that examining three individuals is also important for assessing DNA preservation, as DNA does not equally preserve overtime.

“By doing these three, we’ll be able to see if it is possible to move forward with the rest of the individuals,” she said. “In addition, different parts of the cemetery can preserve differently. It’s really important just to assess what these individuals look like and what their preservation is so we can make sure that the DNA is done as sensitively as possible.”

Dr. Michael Blakey, director of William & Mary’s Institute for Historical Biology, said it will take “less than a year” to confirm race, gender and age of the three individuals.

The descendants will have access to the process.

“We will make sure that the work is done in a way that it is secure and that it is not visible to those who are not part of the descendent community,” Gary said.

Following a unanimous vote from the descendants, Gary said that the next steps, beginning Monday, will be to apply for permits and write a research design.

There will then be another meeting in several months to update the community with more details.

“I am so emotionally full right now,” Harshaw told WYDaily. “This has been a long time coming. Two years isn’t a long time, but it is when the younger descendants are in their upper 80’s or 90’s. It seems like every day matters, and to get their support and vote to proceed with this so that we can confirm who the ancestors are is just amazing.”

“Coming here today was very hard because we are talking about sacred grounds. We’re talking about our ancestors,” Colette Collier Roots, a descendant from Williamsburg, said. “Anybody that was from Williamsburg that was born and raised here came from First Baptist Church. So in a way, this is like an Ellis Island to us. We want to make sure that the graves and our lost ones are being respected.”

“Now when African Americans come to Williamsburg, we are able to tell our history,” she added.

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