The foundation of a once-secret church congregation's second location is being unearthed.
People have been giving their two cents, trying to keep the story of one of America's first African American churches alive with archeological research, but it was a one-cent piece that helped uncover the truth.
The congregation of one First Baptist in Colonial Williamsburg, remains together, but its rich history was kept quiet for many years. Now, its second location has been unearthed after being partially buried underneath a parking lot.
“This is a rare and important opportunity to tell the story of early African Americans taking control of their own story, and their own lives,” Pastor Reginald F. Davis says in a First Baptist press release.
The story of this church, its 1776 origins from when African Americans were not allowed to congregate was buried for years. Both free and enslaved Black people met by hiding in fields and under trees for services. Their church's first building was donated by a white man named Jesse Cole, who was stirred by the church's passionate prayers and hymns. It was swept away in a tornado that blew through the colonial capital and Cole's properties. Decades later the second location was built, where it stood for 100 years and was bought in 1956. The new owners tore the church down and paved over it, making it a parking lot, effectively erasing its hushed history.
“The story of First Baptist Church starts with its foundation, both the physical structure that we hope to reveal and the principles of religious freedom, justice and democracy on which the church and this country were founded. As our community comes together to explore this important site, we hope to also reveal voices that have important lessons to teach us about our country’s roots.”
His church has been focussing on bringing the town's Black history to light. When First Baptist began meeting in secret, approximately 2,000 Black people lived there, most enslaved.
A one-piece coin, soil analysts, and artifacts helped the congregation and archeologists locate and unearth the church's foundation. Ground-penetrating radar was used. It will be used to see if there are any burial sites at the church.
"We are still in the initial phases of the excavation, but we are excited about the possibilities for interpreting the First Baptist Church site as part of Colonial Williamsburg’s mission to share America’s enduring story. This public archaeology project underscores our community’s commitment to telling a more complete and inclusive story of the men and women who lived, worked and worshipped here during our country’s formative years,” Cliff Fleet, the president and CEO of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation says.
Connie Matthews Harshaw, president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, says "the church played an integral role in Williamsburg’s complex and divided history. Community involvement in this public history project continues the church’s ministry of inclusivity as we work to heal as a nation and reconcile our past. The exploration of this sacred site will serve as an example to the state and the nation of the work that is still needed to tell the whole story—not Black or white, but the American story,”