Archaeologists Work to Uncover One of America’s First Known Black Christian Churches


September 24, 2020

Hidden history unveiled!

Archaeologists in Virginia are working to uncover one of America’s first known Black Christian churches, NBC News reports.


The First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, is one of the first known Black Christian churches in the United States. A group of enslaved and free Black people gathered in 1776 to worship despite laws forbidding large gatherings of Black people. Jesse Cole, who owned the property the congregation gathered on, would often listen to the services with his wife. Eventually, he gave the group a piece of property on Nassau Street to establish a physical church. The group grew exponentially, becoming home to free, enslaved, and affluent Black people, recording 619 members by 1828. 

Colonial Williamsburg, a museum and historical preservation foundation, has begun an excavation project to find the church’s original building. First Baptist Church’s Let Freedom Ring Foundation president, Connie Harshaw, said she hopes the dig will uncover more information about the historic church and its original congregants. “We want to literally uncover the history,” Harshaw said. 

To piece together the original site, archaeologists used old rediscovered documents such as insurance maps and information from a previous excavation of the church in the 1950s. Much of what is already known comes from oral stories passed down over hundreds of years from the original members’ descendants. There is hope that the archaeological dig could uncover even more information about these pioneers, many of whom could read and write, something Blacks were outlawed from doing. The foundation’s director of archaeology, Jack Gary, said that these oral histories have been critical in planning for the dig.


“That information is invaluable to a project like this, and we want to make sure that we’re incorporating it into the project. And at the same time, we want to make sure we’re not exploiting that relationship either,” Gary said. “We see ourselves as a tool that the church and the community can use to understand its history and to tell the story. It’s not our job to tell the story, but to give them the information so that they can continue to tell it in ways that are important to them.” 

Many prominent and notable figures flocked to First Baptist Church over the years, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson. In 2016, President Barack Obama rang the church’s Freedom Bell, loaned for the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

“They want to dig and find artifacts or bones just to confirm we have been a part of American history. We want to tell the whole story of American history,” Dr. Reginald Davis, senior pastor at First Baptist said.


“Black history is American history,” Davis said. “There’s an African proverb that says that until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will glorify the hunter. We want to tell our side of the story,”

The first phase of the project will help uncover the church’s original foundation, taking about seven weeks. If it is a success, Gary and his team will begin a second phase, which may take up to a year and a half. He credits Colonial Williamsburg’s new president, Cliff Fleet, with green lighting the project and hopes that the excavation can be the start of an invaluable conversation when the country is grappling with their racial history.  

“His recognition of [the historic church] spurred us to start the planning for this project. It’s definitely become more important as we see what’s happening with the racial reckoning that’s happening in the country right now,” Gary said. “One thing I often point out about archaeology is that the things that come out of the ground, we can all see them and show them to people. It’s tangible remains of the past.”


Harshaw hopes the original church can be rebuilt and restored to produce educational programs for the community about the church. Today’s First Baptist Church congregation has about 300 members.

We are excited to see what they find! 

Photo Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg/NBC News


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