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Historic Discovery: Scientists uncover remains of one of US oldest Black churches in Williamsburg

The project's lead archaeologist said the discovery dates back to the early 1800s.

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Archaeologists in Colonial Williamsburg believe they have uncovered history. 

First Baptist Church in Williamsburg is one of the oldest known Black churches in America, and this week, experts confirmed the discovery of the congregation's first permanent structure in the early 1800s. 

"We can confirm this foundation was built in the early 19th century," said  Colonial Williamsburg Director of Archaeology Jack Gary.

Archaeologists have been digging since September 2020 at the site of the church’s original structure near the intersection of Nassau and Francis streets in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. The church site was previously covered by a parking lot.

According to Gary, the small, roughly 16 x 20 brick foundation represents the remains of the church's earlier building, referred to as 'The Baptist Meeting House' in 1818. 

Gary said his team discovered a coin minted in 1817 at the site, which helped to determine the date. 

The First Baptist Church was formed in 1776 by free and enslaved African Americans. 

They initially met secretly in fields and under trees in defiance of laws that prevented Black people from congregating. The church had its first building by 1818, but the structure was destroyed by a tornado in 1834.

"It actually tells a story of a people that were here," said Connie Matthews-Harshaw, president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation. 

The foundation is a supporting organization for The First Baptist Church, according to Matthews-Harshaw. Its mission is to collect, protect and preserve historic artifacts for the church. 

Matthews-Harshaw said descendants of church members have known and shared the oral history throughout the years.  

"To see a piece of anything coming out of the ground that as a child you may recognize, it makes it real to you and to everybody around you," she said. 

Jaqueline Bridgeforth-Williams and Janice Canaday are descendants of First Baptist Church members. They have waited for their ancestors' stories to be told. 

“To know that we are standing on the ground that our ancestors built, this church is absolutely amazing," said Bridgeforth-Williams.

“They left their impact here," said Canaday. "And so their stories are coming up from the ground now. The truth is coming up.”

Canaday says growing up she couldn’t find herself in the community’s history books. 

“I knew something wasn’t right," she said. "So we are discovering, but we are also uncovering what was already here. They were always here. They were ever-present." 

Now, Canaday feels settled, but the discovery isn’t enough. 

Dr. Reginald Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church says it is now time to tell the truth about their Black ancestors.

Davis called the discovery a "resurrection from the dead," and an opportunity for the history of the church and its early Black congregation to be known. 

"But what we do with that history will determine a lot," he said. “This is a way to not only reidentify ourselves as early Americans but to say if we are going to have reconciliation in our country then we need to tell the whole story.”

This is not the first major discovery at the site of the First Baptist Church. 

Earlier this year, scientists found at least 25 confirmed human burials.

A community meeting is scheduled for Oct. 30 for the descendant community to discuss the next steps and make decisions regarding the investigation of the burial sites.

"This is community archaeology," said Matthews-Harshaw. "Because scientists can tell parts of the story, but there is a human side, too."