Archaeologists believe they have uncovered the original brick foundation of one of the nation’s oldest historically Black churches, known as the First Baptist Church.
The church, at Colonial Williamsburg, the historical site and museum in Virginia, was formed in 1776 by free and enslaved Black people who met in secret in defiance of laws that forbade the congregation of African Americans, according to the museum.
“The early history of our congregation, beginning with enslaved and free Blacks gathering outdoors in secret in 1776, has always been a part of who we are as a community,” the Rev. Reginald F. Davis, the pastor of the First Baptist Church, said in a statement on Thursday.
He added that “to see the actual bricks of that original foundation and the outline of the place our ancestors worshiped brings that history to life and makes that piece of our identity tangible.”
Jack Gary, the director of archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg, who is overseeing the excavation, said the team “always hoped this is what we’d find.”
In an interview on Thursday, he said it was “very powerful” to be able to tell visitors and members of the community “that you are standing in the place where the oldest Black Baptist church had congregated.”
He added, “the resilience of that group and the fact they remain today is really an American story.”
Since September 2020, archaeologists have been digging at the site of the church’s original structure near the intersection of Nassau and Francis Streets in Colonial Williamsburg, an open-air museum that, using actors in period costume, recreates life in the colonial era in Williamsburg, Va.
The archaeologists are looking for burials and seek to better understand the experiences of the church’s early congregants. The project is being supported by leaders of the church, whose members include descendants of those who attended services centuries ago.
Free and enslaved Black people met in secret to found the First Baptist Church around the start of the American Revolution.
Tax records show that, by 1818, the congregation was gathering on the site in a building known as the Baptist Meeting House. In 1834, a tornado destroyed it.
A second church structure, a brick building, was built in 1856 and stood there for nearly a century until it was purchased by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 1956.
That building was torn down that year as part of Colonial Williamsburg restoration efforts, and a parking lot was built on the site. The congregation relocated to another building blocks away.
The museum said on Thursday that the newly identified brick building foundation, which measures 16 feet by 20 feet, sits alongside a brick paving and on top of a layer of soil that dates to the early 1800s.
Artifacts found under the paving included a coin from 1817 and a straight pin that appeared to suggest the foundation was built sometime in the first quarter of the 19th century, according to the museum.
In addition to the original structure, archaeologists have discovered at least 25 human burials at the site.
The excavation of the Nassau Street site will continue “as part of a multiyear project” to learn more about the earliest version of the church, according to the museum.
Officials said they would hold a community meeting on Oct. 30 for descendants to discuss the burial sites and possible next steps.
Connie Matthews Harshaw, a member of First Baptist Church and president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, which helps to preserve the history of the church, said that “the discovery of the original site of our church is such a beautiful reminder of the power of public history to tell stories that inspire and unite us.”
Jody Lynn Allen, an assistant professor of history at William & Mary, said that Colonial Williamsburg “has made serious efforts since the late 1980s to include the African American experience.”
She said “with the addition of First Baptist Church, Christianity, a key component in the lives of Black people, is now included.”