Brick foundation of America’s oldest Black church discovered in Virginia

Founded in 1776 by free and enslaved Black people, the building was first erected in Colonial Williamsburg in 1818.

Archaeologists at work at Colonial Williamsburg.

The brick foundation of The First Baptist Church, founded in 1776 by free and enslaved Black people, has been unearthed in Colonial Williamsburg. 

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation announced the discovery on Thursday. The foundation’s website reads, “While we do not yet know whether the remains of the early structure represent the “Baptist Meeting House,” where the congregation worshipped beginning in the early 19th century, a second phase of work is set to begin in January 2021, and hopes to answer that question and many more.” 

The 16-by-20-foot structure was erected in 1818 after the group initially met in fields avoiding the detection of white property owners who enacted laws that prevented African Americans from congregating. It was destroyed by a tornado in 1834 and rebuilt in 1856; it stood for a century before the city of Colonial Williamsburg bought it and turned it into a parking lot. 

Archaeologists have been digging since September 2020 at the site of the church’s original location near the intersection of Nassau and Francis Streets in Colonial Williamsburg. First Baptist Pastor Reginald F. Davis told NPR that the uncovering of the church’s first home is “a rediscovery of the humanity of a people.”

“This helps to erase the historical and social amnesia that has afflicted this country for so many years,” he said. The congregation is currently in a church elsewhere in Williamsburg. 

Colonial Williamsburg is the largest outdoor living museum in the country, upholding its educational mission through immersive, authentic 18th-century experiences and programming for their guests. The announcement of the discovery coincides with the church’s community-wide 245th-anniversary celebration this weekend. Colonial Williamsburg has partnered with the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg and the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, which is aimed at preserving the church’s history.

According to NPR, Colonial Williamsburg has historically largely ignored the stories of Colonial Black Americans, but that the foundation and museum have placed a growing emphasis on the importance of African American contributions to early America. More than half of the historical residents of Colonial Williamsburg were Black—and many were enslaved. It was not until 1979 that Colonial Williamsburg started telling stories of Black Americans, and not until 2002 that the stories of Native Americans became part of its regular programming.

 The foundation started unearthing gravesites last last year; some congregants are hoping that DNA analysis will allow them to identify familial ties. 

“It’s not that all of a sudden, magically, these primary sources are appearing,” said Jody Lynn Allen, a history professor at the College of William & Mary. “They’ve been in the archives or in people’s basements or attics. But they weren’t seen as valuable.”

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