Uncovering Untold Stories of African American History in Williamsburg

Going Through Excavated Site Content
Overview of Excavated Site
Excavated Site

History is not a static story in Williamsburg. It is a living, ever-evolving story that is meticulously researched and expertly presented. Teams of industry experts scour letters, documents, artifacts, biological data, and more to create the most accurate and complete history possible. One fascinating division of this research is archeology, and a recent project at Colonial Williamsburg is offering incredible insights into the experience of African Americans in the colonial period.

Colonial Williamsburg's Director of Archaeology Jack Gary and his team are exploring the site of the Historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg. In collaboration with the historic church's current congregation, the research team has been able to learn about its extensive history. The story begins when a group of courageous free and enslaved black people defied the law and met in secret to worship with an itinerate black preacher named Moses on the grounds of Greenspring Plantation in 1776. By 1781, the church had relocated to the outskirts of Williamsburg and was led by an enslaved man named Gowan Pamphlet. During this time, a white townsman heard their praise and offered the use of his carriage house on Nassau Street as a formal house of worship.

Despite Virginia's 1786 statute for religious freedom, Virginia law prohibited slaves from meeting in groups without permission. Nevertheless, Reverend Gowan Pamphlet and his congregation continued to meet. In fact, Pamphlet even petitioned to have his congregation officially entered into the regional Dover Baptist Association in 1791, and the white-dominated organization accepted the black Baptist church in 1793.

Excavated Site

The fight to practice religion for this congregation was not always an easy one, though. After the uprising of slaves known as Turner's Rebellion occurred in 1831, the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg was closed for a year, during which time Virginia law was changed to specify black churches could not meet without a white person present. This did not deter the resilient group, as even during this time, they found a way to build a new church on a Nassau Street location and continue to worship.

Colonial Williamsburg's research team knew this site likely held the foundations of a church and therefore burial plots. To begin such a sensitive excavation project, the team first established a partnership with the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg's current congregation and discussed mutual goals. Director of Archaeology Jack Gary says, "the congregation really wanted to know who was buried here, and they also wanted to have a place to celebrate its remarkable story. This was ultimately what we wanted, too, and the partnership in developing the site grew from there." "This important work to uncover the history of Historic First Baptist and present a story, in what we would imagine to be the voices of the free and enslaved African Americans who were brave enough to assemble and worship, could not have come at a better time in our history," said Pastor Rev. Reginald F. Davis. "We are facing, yet again, a time in our nation when we must step up – and step out – to lead the important conversation on race and unity with the hope that we will understand clearly that we are all members of the human race."

Going Through Excavated Site Content

The property's excavation will take place in multiple phases, the first of which was recently complete in late 2020. "The goal of phase one was simply to discover if there was evidence that something more was there. When we began to see the foundations of previous buildings, and ultimately when we found the identifying marks of graves on the site, we knew we could move to phase two," says Gary. The second phase of the multi-year project will focus on finding the information needed to accurately reconstruct the earliest version of the church's first permanent structure, surrounding landscape, and topography. The team will also work to locate all burials and learn about the church's early congregants' worship experience.

Archaeologist Going Through Content

As the archaeology team works, pieces of the church's story begin to come together. During phase one of the project, for example, more than 12,000 individual articles were uncovered (many of which are on display at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg this month). These items include doll fragments, buttons, coins, pottery fragments, and glass bottles, but each piece is a part of this story. For example, an inkwell was recently found. This could certainly be seen as insignificant, as inkwells were incredibly common in colonial American; however, when you consider that the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg was used as a school by the Freedmen's Bureau after the Emancipation Proclamation, the enormous possibility that this inkwell may have been used to teach a former slave to read and write presents itself.

Excavation Site

"We continue to be honored and humbled that First Baptist Church put its faith in us to conduct this important work, said Gary. "What we've uncovered so far not only is exciting in what we've found, but also in the stories that we can attribute to these structures, burials, and artifacts. We're captivated by what more we can learn about this historic church and its trailblazing member." As the story continues to be unearthed, this dedicated team will continue to construct a fuller story of how colonial Black Americans lived.

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