This historic black church was previously covered by a parking lot. Archaeologists are now excavating and analyzing graves at the site


Last month, the archeology team fully excavated an individual’s first burial in a wooden coffin and extracted bones for a DNA sample to analyze alongside analysis of skeletal remains. The archeology team is now working to prepare the second tomb for excavation.

For the black descendants of Williamsburg residents, this effort is long overdue. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, black residents made up more than half of the city’s population, and church membership included abolitionists, teachers, and farmers.

Since 1956, the church’s foundation has been covered by a parking lot owned by Colonial Williamsburg after the museum purchased and demolished the structure.

And it has been largely forgotten. Over the years, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg parked their cars and walked on the foundation. Children exited school buses on field trips to the 301-acre site dedicated to preserving Virginia’s city history as it existed in the 18th century to ‘feed the human spirit by sharing enduring history from America”.

But that history was not inclusive, historians and locals said.

The experiences of members of the black community during colonial times have often been overlooked, said Connie Harshaw, president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the church’s history. The burial of the First Baptist Church all these years testifies to this erasure of history, she said.

“It was an asphalt parking lot for over 60 years, regardless of the people who lived there and died there and were buried there, whose names we don’t even know,” Harshaw said.

The journey to uncover the history of First Baptist Church began in 2020 with a partnership between Colonial Williamsburg and the nonprofit foundation. Talks began in the spring of 2020 and excavations began in the summer of 2020, Harshaw said.

“A lot of accountability”

Alvene Conyers remembers spending almost every Sunday at First Baptist Church when she was little.

The 75-year-old Williamsburg native and member of the church’s Descendants community said he knows about the founding of the church Was covered by a parking lot was a pain. Her mother, a seamstress, knitted only the best clothes for her to wear to First Baptist Church, with outfits including corduroy sweaters and ruffle-neck blouses to wear with patent-leather shoes.

“I felt devalued and rejected and just unappreciated as a human being,” Conyers said. “Colonial Williamsburg has a lot to answer for.”

The dig project is the flagship initiative of Colonial Williamsburg’s efforts to better tell and represent the stories of Black Americans living in Colonial Williamsburg, said Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archeology. He said the fact that the church was covered by a car park is a tragic part of the project’s journey, but hopes excavations will begin to address some damage.

“We destroyed that parking lot and it’s never coming back,” Gary said.

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The First Baptist Church was founded in 1776 by free and enslaved black people in Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia. Members secretly gathered under the trees of a plantation to sing and pray, defying state laws that prohibited black people from gathering in large groups.

In 1818 there was a building on the lot, mentioned on a tax document as the Baptist Meeting House.

The original structure of the First Baptist Church was destroyed by a tornado in 1834. More than two decades later, in 1856, a new brick church on the site of the first building was built and remained there until 1956, when Colonial Williamsburg purchased and demolished the church. as part of an expansion project, place a parking lot on the historic site. Payment for the property was used to build the current congregational church which stands about a mile from the original site.

Today, the church remains active and is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. Harshaw said people come from all over to visit the church, with visitors coming as far as Beirut and Kenya.

“It’s not just a community church anymore. It’s a national treasure and everyone comes to see it,” Harshaw said.

From demolition to consecration

Colonial Williamsburg Archaeological Field Technician DéShondra Dandridge works at the dig site of the original permanent location of the First Baptist Church in September 2020.

Following a leadership change, Harshaw said the current president of Colonial Williamsburg reached out to her in March 2020 after meeting with the former Colonial Williamsburg executive and criticizing the museum. for not highlighting the stories of black residents.

After having conversations with the president to tell a fuller story about Williamsburg’s history centered on the Black experience and the cultural and historical significance of the church, Harshaw said the excavation project has begun. shortly after when the parking lot was torn up in August 2020.

Last year, after about a year of digging at the site, archaeologists uncovered the original permanent structure of the church, a 16ft by 20ft brick foundation resting on a layer of soil that dates back to the early 1900s. 1800, according to the museum. Archaeologists have also identified several graves.

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Although Harshaw said she had no idea there were any unbroken graves at the site, she said some other members of the descendant community were ultimately unsurprised when the plots were discovered l ‘last year. Older members of the church have long spoken of their ancestors buried in the church based on oral histories passed down from generation to generation.

Johnette Weaver, a Williamsburg native and member of the church’s descendant community, said she remembered hearing stories from a church elder about their great-grandfather buried on the original church site.

“For black people, a lot of our history is oral,” Weaver said. “That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means it wasn’t written anywhere or inscribed anywhere.”

To date, Colonial Williamsburg’s archeology team has identified a total of 41 burial shafts. Among these graves, only one is marked by a bottle of wine knocked over at the foot of the tomb. Gary speculates that this grave may have belonged to a church leader or someone important in the Colonial Williamsburg community.

This marked burial will be the last of three burials to be excavated and analyzed as part of the project.

Williamsburg's historic First Baptist Church, today.
Anthony Pinn, a humanities professor at Rice University, said the discovery of the burials was significant given that under white supremacy in the Antebellum South, black people were exploited and reduced to the ability of their physical bodies to provide work. White supremacy also worked to deny black family and social ties under slavery, Pinn added.

“Burial in the context of the black church was not simply an acknowledgment of death, but it was an acknowledgment of life, that this person was substantial, had an impact on the world, and that he had to be recognized and celebrated for who she was in a much fuller sense,” Pinn said.

Gary said accurately telling the story of one of the nation’s oldest black churches is central to the project. After each burial is excavated, he said the next step is to perform both DNA and bone analysis on the skeletal remains to better understand who was buried at the church.

The DNA analysis, which will be conducted by the University of Connecticut, is expected to reveal information about skin tone, eye color and even their propensity for certain diseases. The analysis of the bones, which will be carried out at the College of William & Mary’s Institute for Historical Biology, should show the age of these people at the time of their death as well as their place of origin, their sex, their quality of life, etc. .
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Members of the church’s descendants community hope to eventually submit their DNA to assess biological kinship with those buried at the church. At the end of the project, the remains will be reinterred.

Gary said he expects this phase of the excavation project to take about a year, between the actual act of excavating the graves as well as their analysis and reburial. He said Colonial Williamsburg also hopes to rebuild the church with historically accurate dimensions and furnishings to replicate the church’s Colonial-era appearance by 2026, the church’s 250th anniversary.

“We’re going to put it back exactly where it was,” Gary said. “It will sit in its exact footprint, as it was on the day the congregation built it in the early 1800s.

Gary also said the contribution of the descendant community will be central to how Colonial Williamsburg proceeds with the project, including how to commemorate the site long-term and how they would like to see the remains reinterred.

Harshaw said she hopes the project signals the importance of telling complete and accurate stories that reflect a diverse set of experiences.

“We really hope that we will be an example for the nation,” Harshaw said. “If we can do it in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where you can drive down I-95 any day and see the Confederate flags, hopefully the rest of the nation will look at what we’re doing and say, ‘You know what, we probably need to do something about the fact that this place looked very different, or there’s a very different and more important and significant story,” because the bottom line is this: we have a story common.”


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