In Colonial Williamsburg, experts are unearthing the foundations of First Baptist Church, among the oldest African American congregations in the country, as part of an attempt to uncover a more complete narrative of early American history, centering the Black people — enslaved and free — who contributed much to the fledgling nation.
First Baptist Church, founded in 1776, is still a thriving hub of Williamsburg’s Black community, says the Rev. Reginald Davis, who has served as the church’s pastor since 2004. The church’s origin story — it was founded by enslaved and free Blacks at the start of the American Revolution, in defiance of laws forbidding Blacks to congregate — reflects a spirit of self-determination and resilience, says Davis, and confirms that Black people were present and participating in the building of early Virginia and America.
“Every American war, we have had African Americans serving in every one of them. Blacks were fighting for freedom for America, even when we were not free. … We were part of the destiny of this country, we were part of the dream of this country, we were part of the economics of this country, and everything that makes America what it is today, but we have been largely written out of our own story,” Davis said.
The original church began in a brush arbor outside Williamsburg, under the leadership of free Black preacher Rev. Moses, in 1776. In 1781, guided by enslaved minister Gowan Pamphlet — who worked in his owner’s upscale tavern serving Virginia gentry including George Washington and William Byrd III — the church body became Baptist. Later, the members started meeting in a structure donated by a White landowner, Jesse Cole.
That building, located in present-day Williamsburg’s Historic Area on Nassau Street, was then known then as the Baptist Meeting House. A tornado destroyed the structure in the early 1830s, but congregants built a new building on the same site in 1856 and were by then known as the African Baptist Church. Less than 10 years later, the tabernacle was renamed the First Baptist Church. The church is believed to be one of the first in America to have been built and led entirely by Black people from its founding, says Connie Harshaw, a member of the church and the president of First Baptist’s Let Freedom Ring Foundation.
Recalling her first visit to Colonial Williamsburg as a middle schooler in the 1960s, Harshaw felt “there was nothing there to reflect me or my people. … I wondered, where were the Black people in Colonial Virginia?” After retiring from a position with the federal government, Harshaw moved to Williamsburg and joined First Baptist Church in 2007.
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