25 Graves Located as 245-Year-Old Foundation of Black Church Is Unearthed in Virginia

Over 20 graves were discovered in the foundation of a 245-year-old Black church that was turned into a parking lot in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, according to the Associated Press.

The First Baptist Church was formed by free and enslaved Back people in 1776 and was rebuilt in 1856 after the first structure was destroyed by a tornado. Colonial Williamsburg bought the property in 1956 and turned it into a parking lot.

On Thursday, Colonial Williamsburg said it would begin uncovering the church's foundation. So far, 25 graves have been located, according to Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg's director of archaeology. He said that some of the graves predate the building of the second church.

Gary told the AP that some congregants want to analyze the bones to better understand the deceased and discover familial connections. First Baptist Pastor Reginald Davis said the excavation "helps to erase the historical and social amnesia that has afflicted this country for so many years."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Colonial Williamsburg
Over 20 graves were discovered in the foundation of a 245-year-old Black church that was turned into a parking lot in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Above, a horse carriage passes people dressed in traditional costumes on a street in the historic area on November 22, 2011. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images

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 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.

For decades, Colonial Williamsburg had ignored the stories of colonial Black Americans. But in recent years, the museum has placed a growing emphasis on African-American history, while trying to attract more Black visitors.

The museum tells the story of Virginia's 18th-century capital and includes more than 400 restored or reconstructed buildings. More than half of the 2,000 people who lived in Williamsburg in the late 18th century were Black—and many were enslaved.

Sharing stories of residents of color is a relatively new phenomenon at Colonial Williamsburg. It wasn't until 1979 when the museum began telling Black stories, and not until 2002 that it launched its American Indian Initiative.

First Baptist has been at the center of an initiative to reintroduce African Americans to the museum. For instance, Colonial Williamsburg's historic conservation experts repaired the church's long-silenced bell several years ago.

Congregants and museum archeologists are now plotting a way forward together on how best to excavate the site and to tell First Baptist's story. The relationship is starkly different from the one in the mid-20th Century.

"Imagine being a child going to this church, and riding by and seeing a parking lot...where possibly people you knew and loved are buried," said Connie Matthews Harshaw, a member of First Baptist. She is also board president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, which is aimed at preserving the church's history.

Colonial Williamsburg had paid for the property where the church had sat until the mid-1950s and covered the costs of First Baptist building a new church. But the museum failed to tell its story despite its rich colonial history.

"It's a healing process...to see it being uncovered," Harshaw said. "And the community has really come together around this. And I'm talking Black and white."

It's unclear exactly when First Baptist's first church was built. Some researchers have said it may already have been standing when it was offered to the congregation by Jesse Cole, a white man who owned the property at the time.

First Baptist is mentioned in tax records from 1818 for an adjacent property.

Gary said the original foundation was confirmed by analyzing layers of soil and artifacts found in them. They included a one-cent coin from 1817 and copper pins that held together clothing in the early 18th century.

Colonial Williamsburg and the congregation want to eventually reconstruct the church.

"We want to make sure that we're telling the story in a way that's appropriate and accurate—and that they approve of the way we're telling that history," Gary said.

Jody Lynn Allen, a history professor at the nearby College of William & Mary, said the excavation is part of a larger reckoning on race and slavery at historic sites across the world.

"It's not that all of a sudden, magically, these primary sources are appearing," Allen said. "They've been in the archives or in people's basements or attics. But they weren't seen as valuable."

Allen, who is on the board of First Baptist's Let Freedom Ring Foundation, said physical evidence like a church foundation can help people connect more strongly to the past.

"The fact that the church still exists—that it's still thriving—that story needs to be told," Allen said. "People need to understand that there was a great resilience in the African American community."

Graves Colonial Williamsburg
From left, Reginald Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia; Connie Matthews Harshaw, a member of First Baptist; and Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg's director of archaeology, stand at the brick-and-mortar foundation on Wednesday. Ben Finley/AP Photo