Archaeologists in Virginia on Monday began excavating three alleged graves at the original site of one of the country’s oldest black churches, beginning a months-long effort to find out who was buried there and how they lived.
The First Baptist Church was founded in 1776 by free and enslaved black people in Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia. The members first met secretly in fields and under trees in defiance of laws that prevented African Americans from gathering.
A total of 41 apparent burial plots have been identified. Most are 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) long and up to 2 feet (0.61 meters) wide. The soil is discolored where holes were probably dug and filled. Only one grave appears to be marked, with an empty wine bottle upside down.
Before digging began on Monday, a private blessing took place.
“It was important for us to have this ceremony — to bless ancestors,” said Connie Matthews Harshaw, a church member and board chair of a foundation that preserves First Baptist history. “Because we don’t know their names. Their names are known only to God.
The original First Baptist Church was destroyed by a tornado in 1834. The second structure, built in 1856, stood there for a century. This building was purchased in 1956 and razed to build a parking lot for Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum that was expanding at the time and now has more than 400 structures.
For decades, the museum failed to tell the stories of colonial American blacks – many of whom were enslaved – who made up more than half of the 2,000 population of Virginia’s capital in the 18th century. But in recent years, he’s made an effort to tell a fuller story.increasingly emphasizing African-American history.
When the original church structure was discovered last yearFirst Baptist pastor Reginald F. Davis said it was “a rediscovery of the humanity of a people”.
“It helps erase the historical and social amnesia that has plagued this country for so many years,” he said.
If human remains are found in the targeted plots, DNA testing and bone analysis will be performed, said Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archeology.
DNA analysis should be able to determine eye color and skin tone as well as propensity for certain diseases and genomic ancestry. Bone analysis can show a person’s age when they died as well as their quality of life and the physical strains they endured, Gary said.
The remains will be taken to the Institute for Historical Biology on the campus of William & Mary, a University of Williamsburg, for cleaning and bone analysis. The University of Connecticut will perform the DNA testing.
Church members eventually want to submit DNA to determine family ties to those buried there. Human remains will eventually be reinterred.
“I would say by the late 1800s or early 1900s they had stopped burying people there and it started to fade from memory,” Gary said.
The alleged burial plots came as a surprise to many, said First Baptist member Harshaw. But some older worshipers had long believed that descendants were buried there based on stories passed down from generation to generation.
“When your grandmother tells you something, normally you can count on it,” Harshaw said.