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Excavation of graves begins at historic Black church in Virginia

Coffin found at lost Williamsburg church that was once under a parking lot.

Reginald F. Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, far left; Connie Matthews Harshaw, a member of First Baptist; and Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg's director of archaeology, stand at the foundation of one the country's oldest Black churches on Oct. 6, 2021, in Williamsburg, Va. (Ben Finley/AP)

Archaeologist Jack Gary was moving away the dirt inside the first grave when he spotted the decayed wooden remnants. As he worked, more came into view, until the outline was unmistakable. It was the rim of an old coffin.

“We got it,” he said.

Four days into the dig this week at the lost site of one of the oldest Black churches in the country, Gary, the head of archaeology at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, had found solid evidence of what he had suspected.

Here was the burial ground of the original First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Va., which had served the Black community for 130 years until it was torn down to make way for the city’s Colonial-themed makeover in the mid-1900s.

The congregation moved to a new church and the old site became a parking lot.

Since the project began in 2020, with a rumor of one forgotten grave, Gary and his team have found indications of 41 burials. He believes there are many more.

On Monday, blessed by community prayers and a reading from scripture, Gary and senior staff archaeologist Meredith Poole began excavating the first of three graves that are scheduled to be examined.

Working in extremely hot weather on the site on Nassau Street, they found the first outlines of the coffin edge Wednesday, and uncovered more on Thursday, Gary said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Experts hope to find clues to the lives of the African Americans who worshiped and were buried at the church, which traces its roots to the 1770s.

In recent years, an effort has been underway to uncover and recognize the history and importance of the site, and include its forgotten story in the Williamsburg narrative.

Now pieces are coming into view.

“We now have the full outline of the edges of the coffin,” Gary said Thursday, as well as evidence of the nails used to fasten the lid.

“We haven’t see the lid yet because I think it’s collapsed,” he said. “The lid, from the weight of the soil and rotting over time, has slumped down into the middle. So there’s still a layer of soil that we have to take off.”

“It’s excitement at first,” he said of the discovery. “Then you tend to realize there’s somebody in here. The mind always goes to ‘Who was this person.’ ”

If bones are found, they could reveal information about a person’s height, age at death, illnesses, quality of life and place of origin, according to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. And the DNA could provide a link to living descendants.

Archaeological dig at site of vanished church in Williamsburg finds 200-year-old artifacts

One of the targeted graves has an inverted wine bottle at one end of the shaft and is believed to be the oldest in the cemetery, Gary has said. It probably dates to the 1850s or before, he said.

The inverted bottle was an African burial custom and could indicate a person of high status, said Connie Matthews Harshaw, president of the church’s Let Freedom Ring Foundation. Other kinds of “grave goods” might also be found, she said Monday.

“It is customary for the African American culture [to] also bury things with our dead,” she said.

Members of the church community, some of whom are elderly, have been eager for the project, to learn about possible predecessors in faith and, perhaps, their ancestry. “These people are very old, and they’re waiting,” she said.

Colonial Williamsburg digs for historic Black church

“We are praying that the ancestors are smiling on us,” Matthews Harshaw said. A modern First Baptist Church, built in 1956, stands about eight blocks from the old location.

The grave with the inverted bottle — burial 26 — will be examined last because it is partially underneath the brick foundation of a church that was built on the spot in 1856, Gary said Monday.

The grave with the coffin was selected to be studied first because it was well defined, he said.

“You can see it easily,” he said. It’s not mingled with other graves. In other parts of the site, the dead have been buried on top of or right beside one another, he said.

“We didn’t want to get into a situation where we’ve got more than one person in the burial,” he said.

If archaeologists find any bones, they will have to wear special body suits to prevent their DNA from contaminating the remains.

Those bone samples would be taken for possible DNA extraction, and any other skeletal elements will be taken to the Institute for Historical Biology at nearby William & Mary for cleaning and analysis.

The remains will eventually be returned to their graves. The dig site is not open to the public.

The congregation is believed to have started in the 1700s when worshipers began meeting in the forest.

By 1818 a “Baptist meeting house” of unknown design was on the Nassau Street site. In 1856, a new brick church was built with a steeple and Palladian windows, and stood for a century.

But in the mid-1900s, as Colonial Williamsburg was being made into an 18th-century historic site, a 19th-century Black church didn’t fit that narrative, even though more than half the town’s residents in 1775 were Black, most of them enslaved.

Colonial Williamsburg bought the old church and tore it down in 1955. The site was paved over in 1965. The current church was funded by the sale.

The project began in September of 2020 after Matthews Harshaw and Cliff Fleet, president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, agreed that Williamsburg had little or no information on the historic church.

Preliminary archaeology had already discovered, among other things, human teeth, a 200-year-old coin, the tiny porcelain foot of a doll and a piece of an ink bottle.

Matthews Harshaw said the church community hopes to have a detailed report on the project’s findings by November.

This article has been updated with new information about the archaeological dig.