Unearthing black history


In the early 1800s, when black and free American Americans wore their Sunday clothes at the Baptist Meeting House in Williamsburg, Virginia, the straight pins used to tie women’s clothes sometimes came loose and fell to the floor.

Later, when the church was cleaned, the pins were swept outside and over time they collected in the dirt near the entrance.

Archaeologists have now found 50 outside a likely door of the long-gone church on Nassau Street, and they believe the pins are clues to the lives of black people who worshiped there 200 years ago. .

Colonial Williamsburg announced Thursday that its experts had also found an 1817 penny at the site, along with another grave. (Twenty-five graves have been found to date.)

The discovery of the penny confirmed that an old brick foundation discovered on site is most likely that of the original church building of the congregation, said Jack Gary, director of archeology at Colonial Williamsburg.

Printed with the word “Liberty,” the penny was found in July under a section of brick paving near the foundation. “It was either abandoned, lost or placed,” Gary said. “We don’t know which one.”

“This is a great body of evidence that we can point to, to say that this is the first building of the church,” he said.


The church is one of the oldest black American congregations in the country, and since excavations began a year ago, it tells more of its story. The discovery of the pins was particularly revealing, Gary said.

“If you’re standing in church praying, what are you going to leave behind? ” he said. “You have people who are in their Sunday clothes… and I don’t think it’s too surprising that we find these items of clothing… That’s what’s going to stay.”

“It is possible that these pins were swept out of the building (…) and that they are resting on the ground,” he said. “We’ve been asking the question from the very beginning: what is the archaeological signal of a church. What do people leave behind … in the building. And maybe that’s it.”

Such pins, which Gary said are too small for use with burial shrouds, were widely used in women’s clothing.

“Slaves – we often think they are dressed in rags, [which] is not entirely true, “he said.” Most slaves would have a set of clothes on Sunday … specifically to go to worship. And to see it in material form here in the ground is really quite powerful. “

“The building is one thing,” he said. “But here is what is left by the people who actually worship. These are great objects.”


As for the tomb, it is only the last to be spotted. And there could be many more. “We now have to look at just about every square inch of historic land as a place for people to be buried,” Gary said.

Fragmentary human remains have also been found.

Colonial Williamsburg, located about 50 miles southeast of Richmond, Virginia, describes itself as “the world’s largest living history museum” and contains dozens of original buildings that date back to the 1700s.

The church appears to have had a presence on Nassau Street in Williamsburg from around 1818 to 1834, when its building was destroyed in a storm, and again from 1856 to 1955.

It was then sold to Colonial Williamsburg and demolished to make way for the sprawling Colonial tourist attraction that now sits there. The site was then covered with a parking lot, erasing a rich chapter in black American history in Williamsburg.

Part of this chapter is now being restored.

“I will be able to tell the descendants who are still living … that there was a building here in 1818,” said Connie Matthews Harshaw, president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation at First Baptist Church in Williamsburg.

“I can share this news with them,” she said. “It is an emotional time for them … I cannot tell you the degree of healing that is going on now.”


Black Americans “have been an integral part of this community for so long and then they feel like they’re being forgotten or don’t matter,” she said.

“Now the circle has come full circle, and… people now recognize that not only did we work on it, but we lived there, we loved it, we were part of this community,” she said. “I can’t tell you how excited I am about this.”

Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780, and by 1775 more than half of its 1,880 inhabitants were black, most of them enslaved, according to the late historian Linda Rowe.

What would become the First Baptist Church was organized in 1776, and members gathered in the woods to worship, according to church tradition.

And tradition has it that a local white businessman, Jesse Cole, while roaming his land one day, stumbled upon the congregation meeting and singing in an outdoor shelter made of tree branches and brush.

He offered them a car shed he owned on Nassau Street, according to Rowe.


In 1818, there is a reference to an on-site “Baptist meeting house”, according to a research report on the history of the church. “It is not known what this building looked like or how long it had been on the ground in 1818,” the researchers wrote.

Another mention came in 1834, when a tornado swept through Williamsburg, and a newspaper reported that the “colored meeting house” had been destroyed.

The site may have been unoccupied for years after that, said Gary, the archaeologist. But in 1855, a new brick church with a steeple was built on the site.

The church housed a school for black students in the 1860s. It survived a Civil War battle in 1862 that killed and injured thousands of men and filled the city with wounded soldiers.

It has served its members through the end of slavery, the Reconstruction Ages, Jim Crow’s racial oppression, segregation and the dawn of the civil rights movement.

In 1955, the old building was demolished because it did not match the colonial image. The site was paved in 1965. A new sale-funded church in Colonial Williamsburg was built about eight blocks away in 1956 and is now First Baptist Church.

Further excavations are planned on the site. Matthews Harshaw said the church’s descendant community will be asked this month how they want the project to go.

“What [the archaeologists] have done is that they dug horizontally, “in the shallow layers of the earth, she said.” We now want [the church community’s] permission to dig vertically, to enter a sample of the graves “to search for remains.

The goal would first be to confirm that the dead were of African descent, she said.

Then, “we may not necessarily be able to identify people, but at least we may be able to form family ties,” she said.

Information for this article was provided by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Researchers found straight pins, an 1817 penny, and 25 graves near the original site of First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Va. (The Washington Post / Timothy C. Wright)


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