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Archaeologists Unearth Foundations of One of the Nation’s Oldest Black Churches

A dig in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg revealed sections of the First Baptist Church, which was founded in 1776

The second permanent First Baptist Church structure on South Nassau Street in Williamsburg was dedicated in 1856. (Colonial Williamsburg)
smithsonianmag.com

Editor's Note, October 7, 2020: Excavations in Colonial Williamsburg have revealed the intact foundations of one of the United States' oldest black churches, reports Alex Perry for the Virginia Gazette. In addition to unearthing the First Baptist Church's 19th-century foundations, archaeologists found a smaller brick structure that predates the 1856 building. Read more about the dig—and the still-active church's history—below.

Earlier this month, archaeologists in Colonial Williamsburg broke ground on a project set to unearth the history of one of America’s oldest black congregations. As Jewel Wicker reports for NBC News, the excavation—centered on a site partially covered by a parking lot—hopes to uncover the foundations of the still-active First Baptist Church’s original location.

The Virginia house of worship traces its roots to 1776, when a group of enslaved and free black people gathered to pray and sing at Green Springs, a plantation located a few miles outside of the colonial city.

At the time, the United States had just declared its independence from Great Britain. African American individuals were forbidden from gathering in large groups, but they defied the law by conducting secret meetings in a brush arbor. Per Michael E. Ruane of the Washington Post, itinerant black preacher Reverend Moses was regularly whipped for leading such gatherings.

By 1791, enslaved tavern worker and preacher Gowan Pamphlet had grown the congregation to as many as 500 members, according to historian Linda H. Rowe. The church expanded even further after local white businessman Jesse Cole stumbled upon one of its outdoor services; Cole was reportedly so moved by the meeting that he offered the group use of his carriage house on Nassau Street. By 1828, notes NBC News, the physical church established at the site boasted more than 600 members.

Sign marking the first permanent location of Williamsburg’s historic First Baptist Church on South Nassau Street
Sign marking the first permanent location of Williamsburg’s historic First Baptist Church on South Nassau Street (Let Freedom Ring Foundation)

A tornado destroyed this original structure—known as the Baptist Meeting House—in 1834, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation writes in a statement. But a new brick building was constructed in 1856, and in 1863, the congregation was renamed the First Baptist Church. Throughout the 1860s, the church also served as a school for young black students, reports the Post.

After Colonial Williamsburg purchased the property in 1955, the congregation relocated to a new building on Scotland Street, where it resides today. The original 19th-century structure was torn down, and the site was paved over.

Now, the church and its Let Freedom Ring Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the congregation’s history, are leading the charge to investigate the centuries-old site. Their work is all the more important because narratives about African Americans have long been left out of the city’s history, says Let Freedom Ring President Connie Matthews Harshaw.

“There’s a noticeable absence of the story of early African Americans in Williamsburg,” Harshaw tells the Post.

For many years, she adds, the tourist site “basically erased everything that has to do with African Americans.”

1957 archaeological excavation at the site of First Baptist Church’s original permanent structure
Image of 1957 archaeological excavation at the site of First Baptist Church’s original permanent structure on South Nassau Street in Williamsburg (Colonial Williamsburg)

In May, archaeologists scanned the area with ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and found encouraging evidence of structures hidden belowground. Excavations are scheduled to last seven weeks and may be extended another year and a half depending on what the researchers discover, per the statement.

“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,” says Jack Gary, director of archaeology for Colonial Williamsburg, in the statement. “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.”

Although most of the original Nassau building was lost to time, one piece survived: the church’s 500-pound Freedom Bell, which was restored to its former glory in 2015. The following year, President Barack Obama rang the bell at the grand opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“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,” says First Baptist Pastor Reginald F. Davis in the statement. “ … 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.”

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