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Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Quest to Unearth One of America's Oldest Black Churches

Growing up in Virginia in the 1960s, Connie Matthews Harshaw was surrounded by reminders of a certain type of American history. “I remember getting dragged to Colonial Williamsburg in middle school for a field trip,” she says, “but I didn’t see anybody that looked like me. I didn’t see anything that resembled me, except for the acknowledgement that slavery existed.”


Colonial Williamsburg, the country’s most famous living-history museum, is dedicated to preserving the Virginia town in its 18th-century form and “feed[ing] the human spirit by sharing America’s enduring story.” At the start of the Revolutionary War, Black residents made up more than half the colonial capital’s population, but for decades their stories were missing from the museum’s narrative: how they lived, how they worked, how they worshipped. In fact, Williamsburg is home to one of the oldest Christian congregations established by Black people in the United States, one that traces its founding back to 1776. For more than 50 years, however, the original site of the First Baptist Church has been buried under a parking lot, with only a small metal plaque to acknowledge the location’s historical significance.

For Harshaw, who now lives in Williamsburg and attends First Baptist at its current location, that limited consideration for Black Americans—at the center of the country’s preeminent site for early American history—is a mistake that needs to be rectified. And it’s not just a problem at Colonial Williamsburg, of course—the US has long failed to tell the full history of itself. “When I went through school, we had two history classes: We had one that was American history, and another that was the Black experience,” Harshaw says, sitting in her home office. “I kept trying to figure out: If these things are happening in the same year, at the same time, in the same place, then why am I going to two separate history classes? I kept struggling with that all the way through my adult life, only to figure out the answer much, much too late.”

What took Harshaw so long to interrogate is that history—the kind taught in schools, the kind displayed in many museums—has never fully reflected the story of Black America. Even to this day, the attention paid to topics like slavery, the Underground Railroad, or the Civil Rights era is minimal compared to the time spent on the Mayflower, George Washington, or World War II. A 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found teaching about slavery in US schools to be overwhelmingly inadequate; only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War. On the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of landmarks recognized as “worthy of preservation,” only 2 percent of the sites focus on the experiences of African Americans.

In recent years, that’s finally begun to change. Museums, schools, and historians are working to broaden the focus of American history so that it doesn’t just center on white stories. Just last month the Virginia Board of Education approved a series of new requirements integrating Black history into its schools’ curriculums. Earlier this year, in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, communities across the country debated whether the scores of monuments dedicated to slave owners and the Confederacy should be left standing.

Perhaps the biggest milestone in this shift was the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. To mark the occasion, President Obama rang the Williamsburg First Baptist Church’s Freedom Bell, which had been cast in 1886 to mark its 100-year anniversary. Ever since that ceremony, Harshaw and fellow members of the church have been working to preserve more of its past, collecting artifacts and working with descendants of the original congregation to piece it together. “We need,” she says, “to have people share our history.”

Now, the former church grounds are the site of an archaeological dig that is trying to make up for lost time. Spurred by a breakfast meeting Harshaw had with Colonial Williamsburg president Cliff Fleet in March, the excavation is intended to unearth the history that’s been hidden for decades and reintegrate it into the museum.

Despite the pandemic, phase one of the project began in September. Already, this month it revealed that in addition to remnants of old church structures at the site, there is also evidence of a burial ground. Phase two is slated to begin in January and run for 18 months.

Throughout the process, Colonial Williamsburg has committed to working with First Baptist to determine what should ultimately happen with the site. A reconstruction of what sat there so many years ago is practically a given. “We’re not real shy about that at all, let me just tell you,” Harshaw says. “We’ve made our position clear to Colonial Williamsburg. We’re saying, ‘Not this time. You’re not going to tell the story for us this time.’”

What’s happening with First Baptist isn’t unique; the past gets unearthed constantly. Archaeology exists as a scientific study focused on excavating historic remains to explain human life. Going all the way back to the Enlightenment, the idea has been that science is neutral, rational. But archaeology, like any discipline, is profoundly intertwined with ideology. Which histories get written, and which artifacts get collected and preserved, has largely been decided by those in power, who saw their version of events as canon. Put less nicely, the field is as rooted in white supremacy as anything else in America.

As archeologists began studying the US in the early 20th century, their focus was on the lives of Americans of European descent. The lives of Black Americans, enslaved or free (as well as Native Americans and other nonwhite groups), went overlooked. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s all but forced the field to change, albeit slowly. The following decades saw a new effort to study groups that had largely been ignored, like women, Black Americans, and Asian Americans, among others, but this development did not uniformly mean progress. “By concentrating on ethnic minorities that are both culturally and physically distinct from the white majority in the United States, archaeologists inadvertently created an ethnic archaeology of the Other,” anthropologist Theresa Singleton wrote in 1995. “This result, combined with the fact that the archaeology profession in this country is almost totally white, have produced a study of ethnicity that more often reflects the perspectives of its investigators than perspectives of those being investigated—an outcome that is the exact opposite of what this research was intended to do.”

Even as the field of African American archaeology grew, Singleton identified the continued lack of Black perspectives as a major problem. Better results came, she wrote, when local communities were involved, pointing to New York City’s African Burial Ground as an example. Back in 1991, when an excavation in downtown Manhattan uncovered the skeletal remains of free and enslaved Black people dating back to the 17th century, concerned Black New Yorkers rallied to stop the construction of a federal building and have the site recognized as a national landmark. The remains were taken to Howard University for study and eventually reinterred at the New York site in 2003. Community activists ultimately found success, but many were outraged that they hadn’t been consulted from the beginning. When it comes to historic sites in the US, the voices of Black communities can often be “swamped,” says Michael Blakey, who served as the scientific director of the African Burial Ground Project, “and that’s not accidental.” Even at sites that are already museums or have landmark status, boards and stakeholders are often reluctant to change and perhaps even embarrassed about the uglier parts of their site’s history.


Today, Blakey is the director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William and Mary, right next to Colonial Williamsburg. Along with 48 other people and in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he helped author a rubric for public historians—educators, museum curators, scholars, historic site practitioners—to follow when teaching slavery. Released in 2018, following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, “Engaging Descendent Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites” seeks to provide "a foundation upon which to construct richer, more diverse narratives that bring people to better understand the lived experience of slavery and its legacy."

“Today’s racism is evasive; it’s the racism of denying racism,” Blakey says. The document “talks about the problem of the extraordinary disavowal, denial, omission, and distortion of the past that goes as mainstream history. It is part of the way white people, especially, have been taught to view the world, with slavery marginalized in a way that encourages white supremacy at the center of that.”

Blakey’s work on the guidelines may have been born out of his work with the African Burial Ground, but its relevance has only intensified. The New York Times’ 1619 Project is actively in the process of reframing America’s history to put the consequences of slavery, and the contribution of Black Americans, at the center. This summer, as Black Lives Matter protests sprang up all over the country, many monuments dedicated to colonizers or Confederate leaders were either defaced or toppled, calling into question why such monuments had been allowed to stay up for so long in the first place. If the activists advocating for the removal of statues of slave owners understood anything, it’s that often history, clichés be damned, is written by what’s left standing. Now, Colonial Williamsburg is in a unique position to put everything that’s been learned into action and re-erect, correctly, what was lost.

The sound of the hooves comes before the man in costume shows up. Outside of my field of vision, there’s a disembodied voice: “There goes George Washington.” I’m talking to Jack Gary, the archaeologist leading the excavation of the First Baptist Church, and he’s giving me a tour of the dig site over FaceTime. As he turns in a circle to provide a 360-degree view of the lot, a man in a blue riding coat trots by on a white horse. This actor playing America’s first president is just one of the many guides around Colonial Williamsburg—they’re called “interpreters”—who explain the historical context of various places and objects. As Gary trains the camera on the horseman, I notice something off to the side. It’s a small sign, cast in metal. “Site of First Baptist Church,” it reads. Until Gary and his crews tore up the parking lot, it was the only physical marker detailing the significance of this space.

Colonial Williamsburg’s living history project began in 1926, when John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the Standard Oil baron, met William Archer Rutherford Goodwin, a local priest, historian, and writer who would eventually be known as the “father of Colonial Williamsburg.” Goodwin had a dream to remake the sleepy Virginia town in the image of its 18th-century colonial heyday—and eventually he convinced Rockefeller to help foot the bill. Junior would ultimately pump millions into restorations. It didn’t complete the project, but it set Williamsburg on the path to becoming the tourist destination that it is now.

Goodwin’s blueprint for this project was a document known as the Frenchman’s Map. Drawn in 1782, just after the Battle of Yorktown, it details the shape of Williamsburg at the time of the Revolutionary War. Buildings that were on it were preserved and restored; those that weren’t were removed and replaced. According to Carl Lounsbury, a professor at William and Mary and coauthor of Restoring Williamsburg, “hundreds” of buildings were razed in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s. A white Baptist church was demolished in 1934; a Presbyterian church was also torn down around the same time. In 1956, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation purchased the lot that was home to the First Baptist Church and tore down the structure that had stood in the city for a hundred years. (It also built the congregation a new church in a different part of town.)

First Baptist Church isn’t on the Frenchman’s Map, but Fleet says, “We don’t know if that means it was an omission or it actually wasn’t there.” The congregation traces its history back to 1776, but historians don’t know exactly when its members first had a dedicated place of worship. At the start, they gathered outdoors, in defiance of laws that prohibited Black people from congregating, in rural areas several miles from town. Eventually a white man by the name of Jesse Cole offered them the use of a building on his land in downtown Williamsburg. No one knows when it was erected, but by 1818, historical records show there was a structure on Cole's property known as the Baptist Meeting House. That building was destroyed by a tornado in 1834, and the congregation erected a new brick structure on the same site in 1856. So when an anonymous French army officer sat down to draw his map in 1782, it’s possible that the original structure that would house the congregation hadn’t been built yet. Or it could just be that the officer didn’t think it was worthy of inclusion. Figuring out the date of that first building is one of the big mysteries the archeological dig is intended to solve.

As Gary scans the property with his phone, he eventually pivots it down to a neatly carved piece of earth near his feet and points. To untrained eyes it looks like the edge of a stair and two holes in the ground; to an archaeologist, it’s a discovery. The stair, fairly certainly, is part of the foundation of the church completed back in 1856. The holes, though, indicate something else. It’s possible they held posts that were part of a structure dating back to the early 19th century. The foundation wasn’t a surprise—the team had used ground-penetrating radar to scan the site prior to the dig and had seen outlines of the structure—but the posts are something new, and they indicate there could be a lot more at the site than Gary’s team realized. “All of this is pointing to there being intact archaeological deposits at the site,” he says. “We were a little worried about that because of all the disturbances that have happened at the church.”

After Colonial Williamsburg demolished First Baptist, but before the parking lot was built, another group of archaeologists investigated the area, but their efforts didn’t extend very far. Looking around at the dig site now, Gary wonders aloud if that excavation would’ve been more thorough had it happened just a decade later, during the 1960s. For a long time, there wasn’t a keen interest in preserving that part of Williamsburg’s history.

This disinterest in maintaining the history of Black Americans in Colonial Williamsburg isn’t isolated to First Baptist. Alvene Patterson Conyers, who attended the church as a young girl, remembers hearing about the barber shop her grandfather had on Duke of Gloucester Street, which now runs through the heart of Colonial Williamsburg and abuts the William and Mary campus; her great-aunt used to tell her about the home the family had near Governor’s Palace. But, she says, in the years since, “most Black presence has been erased.”

So was Black input on the Colonial Williamsburg project. Actually, it was rarely, if ever, solicited at all. Lounsbury, who served as Colonial Williamsburg’s senior architectural historian until his retirement in 2016, mentions that in 1928, Goodwin held a meeting to reveal the plans he and Rockefeller had come up with for the restoration. That meeting was held at the newly erected Williamsburg High School, which at the time was still segregated. Conyers relays a story that, after Colonial Williamsburg bought the First Baptist Church property, there was a meeting held at another segregated school to determine its fate. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation couldn’t confirm this account, but regardless, Lounsbury says, “the absence of local Black people in the decision­making process is absolutely true.”

Once Colonial Williamsburg was up and running, things weren’t much better. In the present day, the museum has an interpreter who plays the Reverand Gowan Pamphlet, one of First Baptist’s early leaders, but 50 years ago interpreters, the museum’s website explains, “were not expected or encouraged to teach guests about slavery.” In 1776, some 52 percent of the town’s population was Black, but the first comprehensive historic interpretation of Black history at the site didn’t come until 1979; its Department of African-American Interpretation and Presentation wasn’t formed until 1988. It’s a reminder that, as Blakey puts it, “the story of Colonial Williamsburg is the story of dislocation and removal.” It’s also an indicator of what it is Gary has been charged with uncovering and, ultimately, putting back.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Connie Matthews Harshaw, Jack Gary, and Cliff Fleet held a virtual meeting with members of the First Baptist Church to update them on the initial phase of the archeological dig. Gary explained that his team had been focusing on two foundations they’d located on the site. One was for the church built in 1856; the origin of the second is less clear, but it could have been the structure first documented in 1818. The dig has proven the foundations are still intact, and now Gary’s team is dating artifacts found around the older structure to determine when the building that sat on it was built and used. He hadn’t been able yet to pinpoint a date, but the items his team collected came from the late 1700s and early 1800s, “the perfect time period for when we first start to see the church coming onto this property.” Ultimately, he said, the first phase had proven that with additional excavation, his team would be able to “get the information needed to accurately reconstruct the earliest version of the church” and get a sense of what life was like for its congregants.

A big part of that will also involve the graves found at the site. In phase two, which will begin in January, the Colonial Williamsburg archeologists plan to determine how many burials are on the property and map their locations, but what will happen beyond that, Gary said, is up to the congregation. Harshaw noted that Michael Blakey was on the call, and said, “We’re hoping he will honor us and work with you, Jack, and me … to determine whether or not there’s any objection to us going and trying to figure out and identify those graves.” She said she hadn’t heard any objection from the descendant community about unearthing and studying those remains, “but if there is, I’m hoping they will get to me as soon as they can.”

When I spoke to Blakey in October, he’d noted that, too often, the operators of historical sites put in a lot of lip service about working with the community—calling some descendants, holding a meeting—and then going ahead with their original plans regardless of the input they receive. “In archaeology we call this ‘checking off the box,’” he says. “What I can see is that Colonial Williamsburg wants to do the right thing,” Blakey adds. “The ultimate question is will they do the right thing?”

During the virtual meeting, Blakey laid out options for the burial site: Archeologists could just look at the grave shaft, or excavate the shaft and determine that there are, indeed, still remains there. If remains are exhumed, the descendants will likely have to decide whether research should be done on those remains to see what stories they might tell about the church’s early congregants. Ultimately, Blakey said, “the essential question is when to stop.”

Going forward, Harshaw says, the church needs to form subcommittees to determine the answer. Full excavation? DNA testing? If extracted, where and when should the remains be reinterred? Aside from the burial sites, the congregation also needs to figure out what a reconstructed church on the site should be named. It can’t be called First Baptist, since that’s the name of the relocated congregation’s structure. “The Historic First Baptist Church”? It has a ring to it. There’s a lot to figure out. Throughout the meeting, Harshaw reiterated, “now the real work starts.”

The goal, Fleet has said, is to replace what was removed. In 2026, Colonial Williamsburg will be 100 years old, but First Baptist Church, like the United States itself, will be 250. Fleet hopes the church will be restored to its rightful place in the town’s history by then. “There are a lot of parts of our history in Williamsburg, and in our country, that need a more full explanation and a more full understanding,” he says. “This work we’re doing at First Baptist Church, I think, is a good example of that.”

As Monday’s call wrapped up, Reginald Davis, the pastor at First Baptist, offered a closing prayer. “Father, we just want to thank you for being able to unearth and to tell the story of those voices that may have been muted, buried, made insignificant—but you in your providential way always are able to come back and lift those voices up, Lord, out of the soil of time.”

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