Archaeological project uncovers hidden gems of Black history

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Discovery of the 1856 and 1818 foundations of the Historic First Baptist Church of Nassau Street (far right); Rev. Reginald Davis (bottom left), pastor of First Baptist Church; The First Baptist Church Building on Nassau Street (top right). (Photos/Let Freedom Ring Foundation and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
Discovery of the 1856 and 1818 foundations of the Historic First Baptist Church of Nassau Street (far right); Rev. Reginald Davis (bottom left), pastor of First Baptist Church; The First Baptist Church Building on Nassau Street (top right). (Photos/Let Freedom Ring Foundation and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

By Demetrius Dillard
Special to the AFRO

One of the most historical establishments in the U.S. is the site of recent archaeological findings that is expected to uncover a long-hidden piece of Black history.

First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Va., founded in 1776 by free and enslaved Blacks, is one of the earliest known Black churches in the nation and has become the subject of archaeological analysis and research, garnering national attention following the discovery of human remains at the church’s original location in February.

Colonial Williamsburg, a nonprofit foundation representing a historical district in the Virginia town, has partnered with First Baptist Church and the Let Freedom Ring (LFR) Foundation to launch an excavation project, allowing archaeologists to commence unearthing the foundation of the congregation’s original site on Nassau Street.

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According to Colonial Williamsburg, the project, which is now in its second phase, “will guide how this site is interpreted, commemorated and ultimately recreated so present and future generations may learn about this nationally significant Church.”

Thus far, the dig has located what appears to be two graves at the site and archaeologists are in the process of determining the total number of burials. 

Fragments from a human tooth and a probable human finger bone were identified by College of William & Mary professor Michael Blakey after archaeologists collected remains during the current excavation phase. Blakey also serves as director of the school’s Institute for Historical Biology.

In a Feb. 22 virtual meeting moderated by LFR President Connie Matthews Harshaw, the Nassau Street Steering Committee sought input from the church’s descendant community on what the next steps would be in terms of the archaeology project.

Descendants of the church’s earliest members expressed that they wanted archaeological research to continue in hopes of learning as much as possible about First Baptist Church’s history and properly commemorate and pay tribute to the deceased.

“Sister [Connie] Harshaw and I never knew about this when we came through high school, so what we’re trying to do is go back and link our congregation with the formulation of our nation,” Rev. Reginald Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church, told the AFRO.

“We just want our story to be told so that people will know that right here in Colonial Williamsburg there is an old church the same age as our nation.”

In 1956 when Colonial Williamsburg was founded, First Baptist Church relocated to Scotland Street, where it presently stands.

First Baptist Church is a long-standing fixture in the Williamsburg community, attracting civil rights icons including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Former president Barack Obama rang the church’s bell to open the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. 

The church has been featured in the latest issue of National Geographic, according to Harshaw, and was featured on the Today Show.

Highlighting the deep and rich history of the congregation, Harshaw, also a member of First Baptist Church, said the central focus of the project is to discover artifacts that tell the complete story of the church.

“We know that during the Jim Crow Era, when the Rockefellers came in, they intentionally demolished the church because they had just an Anglo perspective of what colonial life looked like,” Harshaw noted.

“But they missed a huge piece of the history, and that was the African-American presence.”

Oral history passed down through the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of congregants of the Nassau Street location is, for the most part, the only source of history for parishioners today as opposed to relying on documented accounts and records.

“In our culture, because of a lack of interest by the majority population at that time, they didn’t feel it was important enough to record anything about African Americans,” Harshaw said. 

She added that before the archaeological digs began that “we had our suspicions about there being human remains there or burials but they had not been confirmed.”

The descendant community was overwhelmed with emotion after learning about the discovery of human remains and grave shafts, Harshaw said. Should the site be restored and used as a museum to “tell the story” after all excavation phases are complete will be a proud moment for descendants.

Davis, Harshaw and the First Baptist Church community are confident that the new developments and findings from the archeological project will have a far-reaching impact, particularly on younger generations.

“We want the oppressed people to know that you are great people, you have contributed a lot to this culture and to this nation,” Davis said.

“If you tell the true history… of everything that we’ve done, then to me, that will help lower their superiority complex and see that these [Black] people have contributed just as much, if not more, than the oppressor.”