The Quest to Unearth One of America's Oldest Black Churches
Nov 26, 2020 5 mins, 25 secs

Growing up in Virginia in the 1960s, Connie Matthews Harshaw was surrounded by reminders of a certain type of American history.

Colonial Williamsburg, the country’s most famous living-history museum, is dedicated to preserving the Virginia town in its 18th-century form and “feed[ing] the human spirit by sharing America’s enduring story.” At the start of the Revolutionary War, Black residents made up more than half the colonial capital’s population, but for decades their stories were missing from the museum’s narrative: how they lived, how they worked, how they worshipped.

In fact, Williamsburg is home to one of the oldest Christian congregations established by Black people in the United States, one that traces its founding back to 1776?

For more than 50 years, however, the original site of the First Baptist Church has been buried under a parking lot, with only a small metal plaque to acknowledge the location’s historical significance.

For Harshaw, who now lives in Williamsburg and attends First Baptist at its current location, that limited consideration for Black Americans—at the center of the country’s preeminent site for early American history—is a mistake that needs to be rectified.

And it’s not just a problem at Colonial Williamsburg, of course—the US has long failed to tell the full history of itself.

“When I went through school, we had two history classes: We had one that was American history, and another that was the Black experience,” Harshaw says, sitting in her home office.

Just last month the Virginia Board of Education approved a series of new requirements integrating Black history into its schools’ curriculums.

Now, the former church grounds are the site of an archaeological dig that is trying to make up for lost time.

Spurred by a breakfast meeting Harshaw had with Colonial Williamsburg president Cliff Fleet in March, the excavation is intended to unearth the history that’s been hidden for decades and reintegrate it into the museum.

Already, this month it revealed that in addition to remnants of old church structures at the site, there is also evidence of a burial ground.

Throughout the process, Colonial Williamsburg has committed to working with First Baptist to determine what should ultimately happen with the site.

The lives of Black Americans, enslaved or free (as well as Native Americans and other nonwhite groups), went overlooked.

Even as the field of African American archaeology grew, Singleton identified the continued lack of Black perspectives as a major problem.

Back in 1991, when an excavation in downtown Manhattan uncovered the skeletal remains of free and enslaved Black people dating back to the 17th century, concerned Black New Yorkers rallied to stop the construction of a federal building and have the site recognized as a national landmark.

When it comes to historic sites in the US, the voices of Black communities can often be “swamped,” says Michael Blakey, who served as the scientific director of the African Burial Ground Project, “and that’s not accidental.” Even at sites that are already museums or have landmark status, boards and stakeholders are often reluctant to change and perhaps even embarrassed about the uglier parts of their site’s history.

Along with 48 other people and in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he helped author a rubric for public historians—educators, museum curators, scholars, historic site practitioners—to follow when teaching slavery.

The New York Times’ 1619 Project is actively in the process of reframing America’s history to put the consequences of slavery, and the contribution of Black Americans, at the center.

Outside of my field of vision, there’s a disembodied voice: “There goes George Washington.” I’m talking to Jack Gary, the archaeologist leading the excavation of the First Baptist Church, and he’s giving me a tour of the dig site over FaceTime.

In 1956, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation purchased the lot that was home to the First Baptist Church and tore down the structure that had stood in the city for a hundred years.

First Baptist Church isn’t on the Frenchman’s Map, but Fleet says, “We don’t know if that means it was an omission or it actually wasn’t there.” The congregation traces its history back to 1776, but historians don’t know exactly when its members first had a dedicated place of worship.

At the start, they gathered outdoors, in defiance of laws that prohibited Black people from congregating, in rural areas several miles from town.

After Colonial Williamsburg demolished First Baptist, but before the parking lot was built, another group of archaeologists investigated the area, but their efforts didn’t extend very far.

This disinterest in maintaining the history of Black Americans in Colonial Williamsburg isn’t isolated to First Baptist.

Alvene Patterson Conyers, who attended the church as a young girl, remembers hearing about the barber shop her grandfather had on Duke of Gloucester Street, which now runs through the heart of Colonial Williamsburg and abuts the William and Mary campus; her great-aunt used to tell her about the home the family had near Governor’s Palace.

So was Black input on the Colonial Williamsburg project.

Conyers relays a story that, after Colonial Williamsburg bought the First Baptist Church property, there was a meeting held at another segregated school to determine its fate.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation couldn’t confirm this account, but regardless, Lounsbury says, “the absence of local Black people in the decision­making process is absolutely true.”.

In the present day, the museum has an interpreter who plays the Reverand Gowan Pamphlet, one of First Baptist’s early leaders, but 50 years ago interpreters, the museum’s website explains, “were not expected or encouraged to teach guests about slavery.” In 1776, some 52 percent of the town’s population was Black, but the first comprehensive historic interpretation of Black history at the site didn’t come until 1979; its Department of African-American Interpretation and Presentation wasn’t formed until 1988?

It’s a reminder that, as Blakey puts it, “the story of Colonial Williamsburg is the story of dislocation and removal.” It’s also an indicator of what it is Gary has been charged with uncovering and, ultimately, putting back?

Aside from the burial sites, the congregation also needs to figure out what a reconstructed church on the site should be named.

In 2026, Colonial Williamsburg will be 100 years old, but First Baptist Church, like the United States itself, will be 250

Fleet hopes the church will be restored to its rightful place in the town’s history by then

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