The foundation of one of the nation’s oldest Black churches has been unearthed by Colonial Williamsburg, a history museum in Virginia.
“The First Baptist Church was formed in 1776 by free and enslaved Black people. They initially met secretly in fields and under trees in defiance of laws that prevented African Americans from congregating,” according to an ABC News report.
In 1818 the church had its first building, but the structure was destroyed by a tornado in 1834.
First Baptist’s second structure, built in 1856, stood for a century before an expanding Colonial Williamsburg bought the property and turned it into a parking lot.
According to the organization, “Colonial Williamsburg is the largest outdoor living museum in the country, upholding our educational mission through immersive, authentic 18th-century experiences and programming.”
ABC reports that for years the organization had ignored the stories of colonial Black Americans. However, in recent years they have made an effort to tell them more.
On October 7, Colonial Williamsburg announced that it had located the foundation after analyzing layers of soil and artifacts such as a one-cent coin.
In an interview with BNC, Connie Matthews Harshaw, a member of First Baptist Church and president of the church’s Let Freedom Ring Foundation, talks about the significance of this new discovery and what it means to the community.
“I have to tell you, the community is so excited, because not only are we uncovering this site, but we’re also recognizing the existence of a people that were so very determined,” Harshaw said.
Harshaw talks a bit about a possible restoration of the site, saying that they have a concrete commitment from Colonial Williamsburg leadership.
“We actually have a commitment from CW (Colonial Williamsburg), I tell you the president asked me what I wanted and I was not shy. I said you restored every other building, I’d like for you to restore this one,” Harshaw explained.
Covering stories of people of color is relatively new for Colonial Williamsburg. According to ABC, it wasn’t until 1979 when the museum began telling Black stories, and it wasn’t until 2002 when it launched its American Indian Initiative.
“It’s a healing process … to see it being uncovered,” Harshaw said. “And the community has really come together around this. And I’m talking Black and white.”
Excavation began in 2020 and so far, 25 graves have been located based on the discoloration of the soil in areas where a plot was dug, according to Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology, in an Associated Press report.
“We want to make sure that we’re telling the story in a way that’s appropriate and accurate — and that they approve of the way we’re telling that history,” Gary said.