Remnants of Black church uncovered in Colonial Williamsburg
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) — The brick foundation of one of the nation's oldest Black churches has been unearthed at Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum in Virginia that continues to reckon with its past storytelling about the country's origins and the role of Black Americans.
The First Baptist Church was formed in 1776 by free and enslaved Black people. They initially met secretly in fields and under trees in defiance of laws that prevented African Americans from congregating.
By 1818, the church had its first building in the former colonial capital. The 16-foot by 20-foot (5-meter by 6-meter) structure was destroyed by a tornado in 1834.
First Baptist's second structure, built in 1856, stood there for a century. But an expanding Colonial Williamsburg bought the property in 1956 and turned it into a parking lot.
First Baptist Pastor Reginald F. Davis, whose church now stands elsewhere in Williamsburg, said the uncovering of the church's first home is "a rediscovery of the humanity of a people."
Artistine Lang was president of a neighborhood association on the Peninsula. She put that on the back burner more than a decade ago, she said, and started focusing on caring for Pleasant Shade cemetery with her husband Rev. Darnell Lang.
They did fundraisers and organized volunteer cleanups of park, but it was a daunting task - to clean up and care for 20 acres of overgrown, marshy territory. Over the years, volunteers have come and gone, but the park is still in need of upkeep.
"We are trying, and hopefully things will change," Rev. Lang said. "But as it stands right now, it looks kind of bleak, I must admit."
Virginia has a program that funds maintenance for historic Black cemeteries, allotting $5 per grave. But as a private cemetery, Pleasant Shade doesn't qualify, even though it was the main cemetery for Black people across the Peninsula for decades.
Long-lost church in Williamsburg was once under a parking lot.
Archaeologists, blessed by community prayers and a reading from scripture, began to excavate graves this week at the long-lost site of the original First Baptist Church in Colonial Williamsburg, one of the oldest Black churches in the country.
Forty-one grave shafts have now been discovered at the site of the church, which was torn down in 1955 and covered by a parking lot because it didn't fit the town's Colonial motif.
On July 19, 2022, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded $3 million in grants to 33 sites and organizations through its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.The grants will fuel the protection and preservation of historic sites representing African American history, across four categories: building capital, increasing organizational capacity, project planning and development, and programming and education. These often-overlooked places hold aspects of history that must be protected—and used to draw inspiration and wisdom for the benefit of all Americans.