*Earlier this month, archaeologists in Colonial Williamsburg broke ground on a project set to unearth the history of First Baptist Church, one of America’s oldest black congregations.
The Virginia house of worship traces its roots to 1776, when a group of enslaved and free black people gathered to pray and sing at Green Springs, a plantation located a few miles outside of the colonial city. At the time, the United States had just declared its independence from Great Britain. African American individuals were forbidden from gathering in large groups, but they defied the law by conducting secret meetings in a brush arbor. According to Michael E. Ruane of the Washington Post, black preacher Reverend Moses was regularly whipped for leading such gatherings.
By 1791, enslaved tavern worker and preacher Gowan Pamphlet had grown the congregation to as many as 500 members, according to historian Linda H. Rowe. The church expanded even further after local white businessman Jesse Cole stumbled upon one of its outdoor services; Cole was reportedly so moved by the meeting that he offered the group use of his carriage house on Nassau Street. By 1828, notes NBC News, the physical church established at the site boasted more than 600 members.
A tornado destroyed this original structure—known as the Baptist Meeting House—in 1834. But a new brick building was constructed in 1856, and in 1863, the congregation was renamed the First Baptist Church. Throughout the 1860s, the church also served as a school for young black students. After Colonial Williamsburg purchased the property in 1955, the congregation relocated to a new building on Scotland Street, where it resides today. The original 19th-century structure was torn down, and the site was paved over.
Now, the church and its Let Freedom Ring Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the congregation’s history, are leading the charge to investigate the centuries-old site. Their work is all the more important because narratives about African Americans have long been left out of the city’s history, says Let Freedom Ring President Connie Matthews Harshaw.
“There’s a noticeable absence of the story of early African Americans in Williamsburg,” Harshaw tells the Post.
For many years, she adds, the tourist site “basically erased everything that has to do with African Americans.”
In May, archaeologists scanned the area with ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and found encouraging evidence of structures hidden below ground. Excavations are scheduled to last seven weeks and may be extended another year and a half depending on what the researchers discover.
Below, a video about the history of First Baptist Church.