A gathering in 1776 on a plantation of enslaved and free Black people in colonial Virginia established what would become one of America's first known Black Christian congregations. Although Williamsburg's First Baptist Church has long abandoned its original sites, a group of archaeologists is digging to unearth clues into this early American group of worshippers.
While worshippers met in defiance of laws barring Black people from meeting in large numbers, white landowner Jesse Cole could hear them from his home, and he often listened along with his wife. Cole offered the group a piece of property on Nassau Street to establish a physical church. By 1828, the church had a recorded 619 members.
Last week, Colonial Williamsburg, a living museum and historical preservation foundation focused on Williamsburg's Historic Area, began an excavation project to find the church's first building. Connie Harshaw, president of First Baptist Church's Let Freedom Ring Foundation, said she hopes the archaeological dig will help reveal more information about the people who once worshipped at one of the oldest Black churches in the country.
"We want to literally uncover the history," she said.
Harshaw said the Let Freedom Ring Foundation previously learned about former members through the oral histories passed down through their descendants, but she hopes the excavation will help unearth more about a group of people that she said included Black people who could read and write, which was also illegal for Black people at the time, as well as some affluent members of the church.
Jack Gary, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's director of archaeology, said the information passed down through descendants has been useful when planning for the excavation.
"That information is invaluable to a project like this, and we want to make sure that we're incorporating it into the project. And at the same time, we want to make sure we're not exploiting that relationship, either," he said. "We see ourselves as a tool that the church and the community can use to understand its history and to tell the story. It's not our job to tell the story, but to give them the information so that they can continue to tell it in ways that are important to them."
Harshaw said the members of First Baptist Church used Cole's carriage house until another structure was built on the Nassau Street property for the church in 1856. When the congregation moved to Scotland Street 100 years later, a parking lot was built on the property.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson are among the prominent figures who have visited First Baptist Church. In 2016, President Barack Obama rang the church's Freedom Bell in Washington, D.C., on loan, at the dedication of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Today, First Baptist Church holds services for its 300 congregants in its Scotland Street location after it left Nassau Street in 1956. Colonial Williamsburg used a number of methods to locate the original structure on Nassau Street, including old paper documents, such as insurance maps, and information from an excavation that occurred in the 1950s. They also collaborated with the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation to locate anomalies on the property using a ground-penetrating radar unit.
"When you start to trace them out, you say, 'Oh, wow, there's a big rectangle that's in the exact same shape of a church,'" he said. A successful first phase of the excavation project, Gary said, would uncover "intact deposits, or layers of soil and areas around these foundations that have not been disturbed by anything."
That phase is scheduled to take about seven weeks. If phase one is a success, Gary and the rest of the team will expand their search with a second phase, which could take up to a year and a half.
Gary credits Colonial Williamsburg's new president, Cliff Fleet, with identifying the excavation as an important project. He "immediately identified this as one of the most important properties that's in the historic area, and it had a parking lot on top of it," Gary said. "His recognition of that spurred us to start the planning for this project. It's definitely become more important as we see what's happening with the racial reckoning that's happening in the country right now."
Gary said the project could be a much-needed conversation starter in a time of increased racial reckoning. "One thing I often point out about archaeology is that the things that come out of the ground, we can all see them and show them to people. It's tangible remains of the past," he said. "I think right now we need something we can all look at and say: 'That's a brick foundation. We can all agree on that. Here's a place where we can start our conversation.'"
Harshaw said that she hopes the original structure will be restored and that Colonial Williamsburg will eventually produce programs for the community about the history of the church.
Still, Harshaw acknowledges that she struggles with the notion that phase one of the excavation might not yield any new information.
"I have to tell you, even if they do not find a thing, the symbolism that this project represents is that there is a recognition and acknowledgment that there was a population here that will not be forgotten. We are digging below the surface of the Earth to try to find their story," she said. "It says that our history is worth us going down and looking."
CORRECTION (Sept. 17, 2020, 4:15 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of the president and CEO of Colonial Williamsburg. He is Cliff Fleet, not Jim Fleet.