Colonial Williamsburg tells the story of early American settlers. But in 1956, it paved the way for Black history to make parking


Beneath the paved parking lot of America’s largest living history museum, grave sites associated with one of the nation’s oldest Black churches remained hidden for decades until last year.

Archaeologists in Williamsburg, Virginia, are currently excavating three tombs at the original site of The first Baptist church in the historic 18th centurylaunched a months-long process to unearth information about the people buried there and how they lived.

Last month, the archaeological team excavated the entire first burial of an individual in a wooden coffin and extracted the bones for DNA samples to analyze along with analysis of the remaining skeletons. The archaeological team is currently preparing to excavate the second tomb.

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

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

And it has been largely forgotten. Over the years, visitors to Colony Williamsburg Park their car and go through the foundation. Children will disembark from school buses on field trips to the 301-acre site dedicated to preserving the history of the Virginia town as it existed in the 18th century to “nourish the human spirit with how to share America’s enduring story.”

But that history is not inclusive, historians and residents said.

The experiences of black community members during the colonial period were often overlooked, said Connie Harshaw, president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, dedicated to preserving the history of the church. The First Baptist Church being buried all these years is testament to this erasure of history, she said.

“It’s been a paved parking lot for over 60 years that has nothing to do with the people who lived there and the people who died and were buried there, whose names we don’t even know,” Harshaw said. Harshaw said.

A journey into the history of First Baptist Church begins in 2020 with a partnership between Colonial Williamsburg and the nonprofit. Negotiations begin in spring 2020 and digging begins in summer 2020, Harshaw said.

1856 structure of the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, during the 20th century.

Alvene Conyers recalls almost every Sunday at First Baptist Church as a little girl.

The 75-year-old Williamsburg native and member of the church’s descendant community said the background of the church was covered by a parking lot is painful. Her mother, a seamstress, would knit her best outfit to wear to First Baptist Church, with outfits that included knitted sweaters and collared blouses to wear with licensed leather shoes. license of invention.

“I felt devalued and fired and unappreciated as a human being,” Conyers said. “Colonial Williamsburg has a lot of work to do.”

The excavation project is the flagship initiative of Colonial Williamsburg’s effort to better tell and represent the stories of black Americans living in Williamsburg during the colonial era. Jack Gary, Archaeological Director of Colonial Williamsburg. He said the church being covered by a parking lot was a tragic part of the project’s journey, but hopes the excavation begins to correct some of the damage.

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

The First Baptist Church was founded in 1776 by free and enslaved Negroes in Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia. The members secretly gathered under a tree at a plantation to sing and pray, despite state law prohibiting Blacks from gathering in large groups.

By 1818, there was a building on the lot, referred to in tax documents as the Baptist Meeting House.

The original structure of 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 in until 1956, when Colonial Williamsburg bought and demolished the church. as part of an expansion project, placing a parking lot on the historic site. Property payments were used to build the congregation’s current church located about a mile from the original site.

Today, the church is still active and on United States National Register of Historic Places. Harshaw said people travel from all over to visit the church, with visitors as far as Beirut and Kenya.

“It is no longer simply a community church. It’s a national treasure and people will come see it,” said Harshaw.

Colonial Williamsburg Archaeological Field Technician DéShondra Dandridge works at the Baptist Church's original permanent site excavation in September 2020.

Following a change in leadership, Harshaw said the current president of Colonial Williamsburg contacted her in March 2020 after she met with former Colonial Williamsburg leader earlier and criticized the museum. for not highlighting the stories of Black residents.

After speaking with the president about telling a more complete story of Williamsburg history, focusing on the Black experience and the cultural and historical significance of the church, Harshaw said the excavation project has began shortly after the parking lot was demolished in August 2020.

Last year, after about a year of excavating the site, archaeologists discovered the church’s original permanent structure, a 16 x 20 foot brick foundation on a layer of soil dating from the early 1800s, by museum. Archaeologists have also identified many grave sites.

Although Harshaw said she was not aware there were intact burial sites on the site, she said some other members of the last-descendant community were not surprised when the plots were discovered last year. Elderly members of the church have long talked about their ancestors being buried at the church based on an oral history spanning generations.

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

“For Negroes, a lot of our history is word of mouth,” Weaver said. “It doesn’t mean it’s not true, it just means it’s not written anywhere or recorded anywhere.”

To date, the Colonial Williamsburg archaeological team has identified a total of 41 burial axes. Of these tombs, only one is marked with a wine jar upside down at the foot of the tomb. Gary speculates that this tomb may have belonged to a church leader or a well-known person in the colonial community of Williamsburg.

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

Williamsburg's historic first Baptist church, present day.

Anthony Pinn, a professor of humanities at Rice University, said the discovery of burial sites was significant because under white supremacy in Antebellum South, Negroes were exploited and reduced their bodies’ ability to provide labor. White supremacy also had the effect of negating Black family ties and social ties under slavery, Pinn added.

“Burning in the context of the Black church is not simply a recognition of death, but a recognition of life, that this person, in essence, has an impact on the world, and that they must be recognized. accept and honor for who they are. in a fuller sense,” says Pinn.

Gary said accurately telling the story of one of the nation’s oldest Black churches was central to the project. After excavating each burial site, he said the next step is to conduct both DNA and bone analysis on the skeletons to gain more insight into who was buried at the church.

The DNA analysis, conducted by the University of Connecticut, is expected to uncover information about the three people’s skin color, eye color and even predisposition to certain diseases. The bone analysis will be performed at The Institute of Historical Biology of the University of William & Maryis expected to show how old these people were when they died as well as their country of origin, gender, quality of life, and more.

Members of the church’s descendant community eventually hope to submit their DNA to assess biological kinship with those buried at the church. At the end of the project, the rest will be recreated.

Gary said he expected this phase of the excavation project to last about a year, between the actual act of excavating the graves as well as analyzing and rendering them. He said Colonial Williamsburg also hopes to reconstruct the church with historically accurate dimensions and interiors to recreate the look of the church during the colonial era in 2026, the 250th anniversary of its founding. worship.

“We’re going to put it back exactly where it was,” said Gary. “It will be in its right foot, just like the day the church built it in the early 1800s”.

Gary also said the input from the descendant community will be central to how Colonial Williamsburg proceeds with the project, including how to memorialize the site on a permanent basis and how they want to view the remains. is reproduced.

Harshaw said she hopes the project signals the importance of complete and accurate historical retelling that reflects a wide range of experiences.

“We really hope that we will be an example to the nation,” Harshaw said. “If we can do it in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where you can drive up I-95 any day and see the Confederate flags, we hope that the the rest of the nation will see what we’re doing and say “you know what, we probably need to do something about the fact that this place looks very different, or has a very different and more important story and make sense”, because the bottom line is: We have a common history. ”

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