America’s Oldest Black Church Foundations Uncovered

By Laura Schoenfelder

Archaeologists have discovered the original brick foundations of the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, one of America’s oldest Black churches.

Many of the descendants of First Baptist Church consider the early history of their congregation, beginning with both enslaved and free Blacks secretly meeting outside in 1776 as a big part of their identity as a community. Now that the original foundations have been uncovered, it makes that history feel more tangible to the community according to the pastor of First Baptist Church, Rev, Reginald F. Davis.

The excavation started a year ago, and the uncovering comes in time for the church to celebrate its 245th anniversary. The 16 X 20-foot foundation of bricks laid on top of soil dating back to the early 1800s. An 1817 coin was also found during the excavation, solidifying to the archaeologists that this building matched the time period in which it was built.

Colonial Williamsburg’s archaeologists know that finding the foundations is just the start of understanding the structure and building. They want to learn what was around it, what it could have looked like, and how it was being used. Other things that have been uncovered start to tell that history, such as an old ink bottle tells historians that someone could read and write, and a bottle of vanilla extract meant someone would cook there. All these little pieces come together to tell the history of the people who attended this church.

The goal of the excursion was to uncover the original structure, dating back to 1818. The church was destroyed by a tornado in 1834. A new building for the congregation was built on the same site in 1856, but the church sold it and built their current church a half-mile away. This building was then demolished to build a parking lot for the Colonial Williamsburg Museum. Both the original foundations and remains from the newer building have been unearthed.

Human remains from burials have also been uncovered; however, the findings will need to be discussed with descendants to best decide the next move in research. The descendants and other church members have had a hand in the excursion, visiting the site and watching the work, bringing them closer to the connection between the foundations and their community.

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