The site of one of America’s oldest Black church may soon be unearthed.
Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists, under the guidance of The Historic First Baptist Church, will begin excavating this nationally significant site in early September to find the earliest structure within the city limits where the congregation met.
If successful, the initiative will enable Colonial Williamsburg to expand its Black-interpretative programming through voices that have been silent since the revolution.
Ground-penetrating radar indicates that remains of this early structure used by members of First Baptist Church—originally founded in secret by free and enslaved Blacks at the start of America’s Revolution—may lie buried near the intersection of Nassau and Francis streets in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area.
It’s there that archaeologists and church leaders hope to unearth evidence of what researchers believe may have been the structure that was offered for their use by a white landowner named Jesse Cole, who owned the property at the time. The team also will explore how the congregation used the structure and seek to identify any burial sites present so they can be protected and memorialized.
“This is a rare and important opportunity to tell the story of early African Americans taking control of their own story, and their own lives,” said Pastor Reginald F. Davis. “The story of First Baptist Church starts with its foundation, both the physical structure that we hope to reveal and the principles of religious freedom, justice and democracy on which the church and this country were founded. As our community comes together to explore this important site, we hope to also reveal voices that have important lessons to teach us about our country’s roots.”
The first phase of the public excavation, which will last approximately seven weeks and is fully funded through donor support. Future phases are under development and will be informed by the findings uncovered during the team’s initial work.
First Baptist Church and Colonial Williamsburg — in collaboration with the Let Freedom Ring Foundation and a consortium of stakeholders representing William & Mary, local museums, churches, the city and community organizations — plan to host several community open houses to highlight the excavation’s progress and present their findings to the public.
“The church played an integral role in Williamsburg’s complex and divided history. Community involvement in this public history project continues the church’s ministry of inclusivity as we work to heal as a nation and reconcile our past. The exploration of this sacred site will serve as an example to the state and the nation of the work that is still needed to tell the whole story—not Black or white, but the American story,” said Connie Matthews Harshaw, president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation.
Colonial Williamsburg first investigated the Nassau Street property in 1957 to determine the existence of any 18th-century structures on the site, according to a news release. Using standard archaeological techniques of the time, excavators dug trenches looking for brick foundations. Most of the excavators were Black men whose identities are being investigated now with plans to recognize their work.
Research resumed this year using 21st-century technology as part of Colonial Williamsburg’s ongoing commitment to explore, honor and interpret the lives of Black men, women and children whose extraordinary contributions helped build the nation. Notes and maps from the 1957 excavation were revisited and the early findings were digitized into Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeological mapping database.
Additionally, photographs of the congregation’s later brick church on Nassau Street, built in 1856 and demolished a century later, informed the preliminary research phase of the project and determined the first steps.
First Baptist Church and Colonial Williamsburg teamed up in May with archaeologists from the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation to conduct ground-penetrating radar analysis on the site. Partially covered by a paved parking lot, the data revealed evidence of historically significant archaeological findings.
The site is now being prepared for a full excavation, which includes collaborating with the city to remove 11 parking spaces adjacent to the project site to accommodate the excavation and possibly rebuild the structure.
“There is evidence of a late 18th-century or early 19th-century structure below later buildings used by the church, leading us to wonder if it could be the remains of the first church building. The results of this initial phase will help to inform how we move forward with additional research that will allow us to fully interpret and commemorate this nationally important site,” said Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology.
Discussions are underway for future phases of the excavation. Based on the archaeological findings, the foundation is also exploring ideas for presenting and interpreting the site as part of its educational mission.
Students and scholars from William & Mary will assist Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists as they dig in the ground and through church and foundation records to explore the church’s history.
The university is offering two foundation-funded fellowships for graduate students enrolled in its anthropology program, as well as opportunities for undergraduates enrolled in the National Institute of American History and Democracy program. Additionally, university faculty representing multiple fields, including community archaeology, historical biology and public history, are offering their expertise, according to the news release from Colonial Williamsburg and First Baptist Church.
The First Baptist Church archaeology project continues an ongoing collaboration between the church and Colonial Williamsburg.
In 2016 the institutions joined to conserve First Baptist Church’s Freedom Bell and renovate the church’s bell tower, allowing the bell to ring that year for the first time since segregation. That same year the bell travelled to Washington, D.C. for the dedication of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
There it was rung by then-President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and the late Ruth Odom Bonner, the child of an enslaved father, and three generations of her descendants.
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