Friday, December 8, 2023

Historic First Baptist Church Original Permanent Structure Discovered During Archaeological Dig

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has announced the discovery of what archaeologists believe to be the permanent structure of the original Historic First Baptist Church (Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

WILLIAMSBURG — The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF) has announced the discovery of what archaeologists believe to be the first permanent structure of Historic First Baptist Church.

After more than a year of archaeological excavation at the church’s original site on Nassau and Francis streets in the city’s Historic Area, the newly-identified 16 x 20-foot brick building foundation was uncovered. The foundation sits alongside brick paving and a top layer of soil which dates back to the early-nineteenth century.

Additionally, archaeologists have uncovered other evidence to include an 1817 coin and a straight pin indicative of the first quarter of the 1800s.

“We always hoped this is what we’d find,” said Colonial Williamsburg’s Director of Archaeology Jack Gary. “Now we can move forward to better understand the footprint of the building. Is it the only structure on the site? What else was around it? What did it look like? How was it being used? This is really only the beginning.”

The announcement of the discovery coincides with the celebration of Historic First Baptist Church’s 245th anniversary, which will take place with the community this coming weekend (Oct. 9-10, 2021).

In 1776, Historic First Baptist Church was founded in secret by Rev. Gowan Pamphlet and other enslaved individuals who risked their lives in order to congregate and worship together. Rev. Pamphlet went on to become the first and, at the time, only ordained black preacher in the country. This past April, a historic highway marker in honor of Pamphlet was dedicated near the site of the original permanent church.

“The early history of our congregation, beginning with enslaved and free Blacks gathering outdoors in secret in 1776, has always been a part of who we are as a community,” said Pastor of Historic First Baptist Church Rev. Dr. Reginald F. Davis. “To see it unearthed — to see the actual bricks of that original foundation and the outline of the place our ancestors worshipped — brings that history to life and makes that piece of our identity tangible. After 245 years, this is a reason to truly celebrate.”

An October 7 CWF release states that tax records suggest that by 1818, the church’s congregation was worshipping in a building then known as the Baptist Meeting House. The release goes on to state that this is believed to be the congregations first permanent structure.

“This discovery could not have come at a better time,” said President of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation and member of Historic First Baptist Church Connie Matthews Harshaw. “We are so excited to welcome both our church community and the local community back after a difficult year of closures, and the discovery of the original site of our church is such a beautiful reminder of the power of public history to tell stories that inspire and unite us.”

The release also states that the original structure has been buried for 165 years, first under the foundation of a brick church that was constructed in 1856 but later destroyed by a tornado and then a parking lot. It was during the last five years that the collaborative efforts between Historic First Baptist Church and CWF have taken place to uncover the history.

“Colonial Williamsburg is committed to telling a more complete and inclusive story of the men and women who lived, worked and worshipped here during our country’s formative years,” said President and CEO of CWF Cliff Fleet. “The history of this congregation is a story that deserves to be at the forefront of our interpretation and education efforts, and we are honored to play a part in bringing that story to light.”

During the excavation process, archaeologists also uncovered at least twenty-five confirmed human burials on the grounds. A meeting will take place on Oct. 30 for the descendant community of the church in order to discuss next steps as well as make decisions as to how to proceed with investigating burial sites.

In 1956, Historic First Baptist Church relocated to 727 Scotland Street. Then, in 2016, the church partnered with CWF in order to renovate the church’s historic bell, now known as the “Freedom Bell,” which hadn’t rung since segregation.

Excavation on the site is scheduled to continue weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (weather-permitting). According to CWF, this is a multi-year project that endeavors to seek more information in order to accurately reconstruct the earliest version of the church’s first permanent structure, surrounding landscape and topography. It also seeks to locate burials and learn more about the worship experience for the church’s earliest congregants.

The project is supported by gifts from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., The Ford Foundation, the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation, and multiple individual donors.

To learn more about the anniversary events this weekend, click here.

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