19th-century graves linked to one of America’s oldest black churches, says analysis

‘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.’

Archaeological investigations at the original site of the First Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in the United States, have identified three burials as belonging to members of its congregation in the early 19th century.

Drone photograph showing the extent of the First Baptist Church cemetery. The brick foundations of the 1856 church are on the right. Diagonal trenches from excavations conducted in 1957 run through the middle of the site. IMAGE: courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

The First Baptist Church was formed in secret in 1776 by free and enslaved black people in Williamsburg, Virginia, in defiance of laws forbidding African Americans from gathering.

At first, its members worshipped secretly under an arbour they built near Green Spring Plantation, about 5 miles west of Williamsburg, before Jesse Cole, a white landowner, offered them use of a building on his property.

According to tax records, the congregation was worshipping in this building by 1818.

The 1856 First Baptist Church structure on South Nassau Street in Williamsburg during the 20th century. IMAGE: courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

In 1856, a new brick church was constructed on the site of the earlier building after it was destroyed by a tornado.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a living history museum, and the largest American history museum in the world, acquired the land on Nassau Street in 1956 from First Baptist Church – which now worships at Scotland Street – and demolished the building.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at First Baptist Church on June 26, 1962 with Pastor Rev. David Collins, left, and civil rights leader Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker. IMAGE: courtesy of The Historic First Baptist Church

Colonial Williamsburg conducted investigations shortly after purchasing the land to determine the existence of any 18th-century structures.

Research at the site, which had since been used as a car park, resumed in 2020, with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation launching a multi-year project, in partnership with the First Baptist Church’s descendant community and the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, aimed at uncovering evidence of the first permanent structure for the church.

Brick foundation of the first church building and associated brick paving. An interior brick foundation wall from the 1856 church lies on the far left. IMAGE: courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

In May 2020, ground-penetrating radar confirmed traces of a late 18th-century or early 19th-century structure.

During the first phase of excavation work, which was carried out under the guidance of The First Baptist Church, archaeologists uncovered the foundations of the 1856 church and postholes dating as far back as the 1700s.

More than 12,000 individual artefacts including pottery sherds, glass bottles, buttons, coins, doll fragments, and an inkwell were also found.

A porcelain doll’s foot, likely dating to the 19th century. IMAGE: courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg

Excavating beneath this layer, the team discovered the brick foundations of the original meeting house.

They also identified fence posts delineating the outline of a cemetery, and more than 60 burials.

Three graves containing single inhumations, and believed to date to the early 19th century, were selected for excavation.

A possible grave shaft uncovered near foundation footings constructed in the 1950s. IMAGE: courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg

It was announced earlier this month that researchers from the University of Connecticut had successfully extracted DNA from one of the three excavated individuals, which revealed them to be male and of African descent.

Osteological evidence indicates that he died between the ages of 16 and 18, and had experienced early childhood stressors, such as malnutrition or disease.

A garment button made from animal bone was recovered from his grave.

Skeletal analysis of the remains of the two other less well-preserved individuals revealed that both were male and aged between 35 and 45 years old. One appears to have been buried dressed in trousers and a vest, and a button from his clothing still had cotton fibres attached.

Colonial Williamsburg Archaeological Field Technician DéShondra Dandridge at the excavation site. IMAGE: courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg

‘All three lines of evidence – DNA results, osteological analysis, and archaeological findings – provide support and create a compelling argument that these are indeed the ancestors of the First Baptist community,’ said Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s Director of Archaeology.

All excavated remains will be re-interred and memorialised at the burial site.

Jason B.Copes One Cent piece, button, and pins found during excavations. IMAGE: courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

‘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,’ said Reverend Dr. Reginal F. Davis, Pastor of the First Baptist Church.

‘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.’

The investigations form part of Colonial Williamsburg’s commitment to exploring and honouring the lives of black men, women, and children whose histories had previously been excluded from the museum’s narrative.

Through these new findings, and a recent grant, they aim to reconstruct and interpret The Historic First Baptist Church on the land where it once stood.