The Quest to Unearth One of America’s Oldest Black Churches

Growing up in Virginia in the 1960s, Connie Matthews Harshaw was surrounded by reminders of a certain type of American history. “I remember getting dragged to Colonial Williamsburg in middle school for a field trip,” she says, “but I didn’t see anybody that looked like me. I didn’t see anything that resembled me, except for the acknowledgement that slavery existed.”

Colonial Williamsburg, the country’s most famous living-history museum, is dedicated to preserving the Virginia town in its 18th-century form and “feed[ing] the human spirit by sharing America’s enduring story.” At the start of the Revolutionary War, Black residents made up more than half the colonial capital’s population, but for decades their stories were missing from the museum’s narrative: how they lived, how they worked, how they worshipped. In fact, Williamsburg is home to one of the oldest Christian congregations established by Black people in the United States, one that traces its founding back to 1776. For more than 50 years, however, the original site of the First Baptist Church has been buried under a parking lot, with only a small metal plaque to acknowledge the location’s historical significance.

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For Harshaw, who now lives in Williamsburg and attends First Baptist at its current location, that limited consideration for Black Americans—at the center of the country’s preeminent site for early American history—is a mistake that needs to be rectified. And it’s not just a problem at Colonial Williamsburg, of course—the US has long failed to tell the full history of itself. “When I went through school, we had two history classes: We had one that was American history, and another that was the Black experience,” Harshaw says, sitting in her home office. “I kept trying to figure out: If these things are happening in the same year, at the same time, in the same place, then why am I going to two separate history classes? I kept struggling with that all the way through my adult life, only to figure out the answer much, much too late.”

What took Harshaw so long to interrogate is that history—the kind taught in schools, the kind displayed in many museums—has never fully reflected the story of Black America. Even to this day, the attention paid to topics like slavery, the Underground Railroad, or the Civil Rights era is minimal compared to the time spent on the Mayflower, George Washington, or World War II. A 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found teaching about slavery in US schools to be overwhelmingly inadequate; only 8 percent of high school seniors surveyed could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War. On the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of landmarks recognized as “worthy of preservation,” only 2 percent of the sites focus on the experiences of African Americans.

In recent years, that’s finally begun to change. Museums, schools, and historians are working to broaden the focus of American history so that it doesn’t just center on white stories. Just last month the Virginia Board of Education approved a series of new requirements integrating Black history into its schools’ curriculums. Earlier this year, in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, communities across the country debated whether the scores of monuments dedicated to slave owners and the Confederacy should be left standing.

Perhaps the biggest milestone in this shift was the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. To mark the occasion, President Obama rang the Williamsburg First Baptist Church’s Freedom Bell, which had been cast in 1886 to mark its 100-year anniversary. Ever since that ceremony, Harshaw and fellow members of the church have been working to preserve more of its past, collecting artifacts and working with descendants of the original congregation to piece it together. “We need,” she says, “to have people share our history.”