Remnants of Black church uncovered in Colonial Williamsburg

Remnants of Black church uncovered in Colonial Williamsburg

Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology, holds a one-cent coin from 1817 on Wednesday Oct. 6, 2021, in Williamsburg, Va. The coin helped archaeologists confirm that a recently unearthed brick-and-mortar foundation belonged to one of the oldest Black churches in the United States. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) — The brick foundation of one of the nation’s oldest Black churches has been unearthed at Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum in Virginia that continues to reckon with its past storytelling about the country’s origins and the role of Black Americans.

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 (5-meter by 6-meter) 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.

First Baptist Pastor Reginald F. Davis, whose church now stands elsewhere in Williamsburg, said the uncovering of the church’s first home is “a rediscovery of the humanity of a people.”

“This helps to erase the historical and social amnesia that has afflicted this country for so many years,” he said.

Colonial Williamsburg on Thursday announced that it had located the foundation after analyzing layers of soil and artifacts such as a one-cent coin.

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.

Reginald F. Davis, from left, pastor of First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Connie Matthews Harshaw, a member of First Baptist, and Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology, stand at the brick-and-mortar foundation of one the oldest Black churches in the U.S. on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Williamsburg, Va. Colonial Williamsburg announced Thursday Oct. 7, that the foundation had been unearthed by archeologists. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)

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.”

The excavation began last year. So far, 25 graves have been located based on the discoloration of the soil in areas where a plot was dug, according to Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology.

Gary said some congregants have already expressed an interest in analyzing bones to get a better idea of the lives of the deceased and to discover familial connections. He said some graves appear to predate the building of the second church.

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 an 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.”

 

An Innovative and Interactive Way to Learn Black History

An Innovative and Interactive Way to Learn Black History

Black History 365 includes originally composed music by Grammy-nominated producer Dr. Kevin “Khao” Cates, who has worked with notables such as Jay-Z, the late Nipsey Hustle, and Ludacris. This snippet of video is from a webcast about the project.


Dr. Walter Milton, Jr., remembers the shame he felt back in elementary school when his teacher announced to the class that they were going to learn about Black history and then started with slavery. He said he wanted to hide under the table. But later when he returned home that night, he also remembers the impact his parents had on his spirit when they explained that African Americans are descendants of ancient kings and queens. Dr. Milton and his partner, Dr. Joel Freeman, want other children to have that same impactful, eye-opening experience about Black history and that’s why they created the Black History 365 education curriculum.

“We want to give the students this whole experience about the Moors, the hunting, fishing, gathering, agriculture, all these different aspects how the civilizations began throughout ancient Africa,” said Dr. Freeman, who has included his personal photo collection of artifacts from Africa in the curriculum. “So, there’s images from the collection, where I’ve had people of African descent say, ‘Wow, I almost feel like I’m in that picture. I see my ancestors. I see myself there.’”

Both Milton and Freeman have strong educational and professional bonafides to take on a mission of bringing Black history to life in an innovative and technological way that will capture the heart and spirit of a new generation. Milton served as a school superintendent for twelve years in the states of New York, Michigan, and Illinois, and he taught at several universities across the United States. He’s also published several books addressing issues related to Black parents, schools, and education. Freeman served as player development mentor and character coach for the Washington Bullets/Wizards For 20 NBA seasons. He has also worked with the Association of International Schools for Africa (AISA), traveling extensively throughout the continent of Africa and conducting a number of training events for educators, government, and business leaders. Genuine documents and artifacts from Dr. Freeman’s personal collection have been showcased in exhibitions at the United Nations, White House, and Clinton Presidential Library.

“I met Joel when I was a superintendent back in Springfield, Illinois,” said Milton, adding that a friend of his insisted that he’d have a lot to talk about with the historian, who he called a “brother, but not a brother.” Milton was perplexed. “He’s a white guy? I said, okay, a white guy with Black history. No problem. So Joel and I met each other and the rest is history. He was one of the first persons that I called to start this project,” said Milton.


A Peek Inside Black History 365


When you first see the Black History 365 curriculum book, it looks like any other textbook. But take a peek inside and that’s where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The artifacts from Dr. Freeman’s collection are sprinkled throughout the beautifully designed schoolbook, which begins with a chapter on Ancient Africa and ends with George Floyd. Students can scan QR codes with their smart phones that lead to originally composed music by Grammy-nominated producer Dr. Kevin “Khao” Cates, who has worked with notables such as Jay-Z, the late Nipsey Hustle, and Ludacris. Cates has a doctorate in education and through his own educational program called Bridging Da Gap, he has produced more than 600 songs for K-12 grade levels. The music is meant to engage listeners, but the QR codes also link to relevant people and places related to the subject matter. The eBook version of the book will have music and videos embedded right in it, no WIFI needed. An app is in development, too, as a way to integrate current events.

“Everyone around the country who downloads the app will get a spritz of information every morning. And then it creates this technological ecosystem where a teacher can start a class with that,” said Dr. Freeman. “Hey guys, what did you think about what you saw this morning…at the dinner table…in the grocery store? Whatever it might be, it can be sparked with these conversations.”

That said, the opportunity to bring in conversations is already a staple in the book. The “Elephant Experience” is a sidebar area to the core content of the text. It represents an opportunity to talk about hot topics that are often not so easy to discuss. In other words, the “elephant in the room.” The co-founders wanted to provide a resource that would invite students, educators, parents, and anyone else who engages with the material to become critical thinkers, compassionate listeners, fact-based and respectful communicators, and action-oriented people with solutions.

“One of the things we wanted to do with this elephant experience is deal with topics like three fifths of the human being and reparations. What about tearing down statues? And are we in a post-racial society since we had a Black president for two terms? Did Africans sell Africans into slavery? Topics that people butt heads about or talk past each other or just unfriend each other on Facebook,” said Dr. Freeman.

The Black History 365 project has expanded beyond the talents of Dr. Milton, Dr. Freeman, and Dr. Cates. The team now includes 30 additional expert educators, trainers, and instructors. Learn more at BlackHistory365education.com.

An Innovative and Interactive Way to Learn Black History

An Innovative and Interactive Way to Learn Black History

Black History 365 includes originally composed music by Grammy-nominated producer Dr. Kevin “Khao” Cates, who has worked with notables such as Jay-Z, the late Nipsey Hustle, and Ludacris. This snippet of video is from a webcast about the project.


Dr. Walter Milton, Jr., remembers the shame he felt back in elementary school when his teacher announced to the class that they were going to learn about Black history and then started with slavery. He said he wanted to hide under the table. But later when he returned home that night, he also remembers the impact his parents had on his spirit when they explained that African Americans are descendants of ancient kings and queens. Dr. Milton and his partner, Dr. Joel Freeman, want other children to have that same impactful, eye-opening experience about Black history and that’s why they created the Black History 365 education curriculum.

“We want to give the students this whole experience about the Moors, the hunting, fishing, gathering, agriculture, all these different aspects how the civilizations began throughout ancient Africa,” said Dr. Freeman, who has included his personal photo collection of artifacts from Africa in the curriculum. “So, there’s images from the collection, where I’ve had people of African descent say, ‘Wow, I almost feel like I’m in that picture. I see my ancestors. I see myself there.’”

Both Milton and Freeman have strong educational and professional bonafides to take on a mission of bringing Black history to life in an innovative and technological way that will capture the heart and spirit of a new generation. Milton served as a school superintendent for twelve years in the states of New York, Michigan, and Illinois, and he taught at several universities across the United States. He’s also published several books addressing issues related to Black parents, schools, and education. Freeman served as player development mentor and character coach for the Washington Bullets/Wizards For 20 NBA seasons. He has also worked with the Association of International Schools for Africa (AISA), traveling extensively throughout the continent of Africa and conducting a number of training events for educators, government, and business leaders. Genuine documents and artifacts from Dr. Freeman’s personal collection have been showcased in exhibitions at the United Nations, White House, and Clinton Presidential Library.

“I met Joel when I was a superintendent back in Springfield, Illinois,” said Milton, adding that a friend of his insisted that he’d have a lot to talk about with the historian, who he called a “brother, but not a brother.” Milton was perplexed. “He’s a white guy? I said, okay, a white guy with Black history. No problem. So Joel and I met each other and the rest is history. He was one of the first persons that I called to start this project,” said Milton.


A Peek Inside Black History 365


When you first see the Black History 365 history curriculum book, it looks like any other textbook. But take a peek inside and that’s where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The artifacts from Dr. Freeman’s collection are sprinkled throughout the beautifully designed schoolbook, which begins with a chapter on Ancient Africa and ends with George Floyd. Students can scan QR codes with their smart phones that lead to originally composed music by Grammy-nominated producer Dr. Kevin “Khao” Cates, who has worked with notables such as Jay-Z, the late Nipsey Hustle, and Ludacris. Cates has a doctorate in education and through his own educational program called Bridging Da Gap, he has produced more than 600 songs for K-12 grade levels. The music is meant to engage listeners, but the QR codes also link to relevant people and places related to the subject matter. The eBook version of the book will have music and videos embedded right in it, no WIFI needed. An app is in development, too, as a way to integrate current events.

“Everyone around the country who downloads the app will get a spritz of information every morning. And then it creates this technological ecosystem where a teacher can start a class with that,” said Dr. Freeman. “Hey guys, what did you think about what you saw this morning…at the dinner table…in the grocery store? Whatever it might be, it can be sparked with these conversations.”

That said, the opportunity to bring in conversations is already a staple in the book. The “Elephant Experience” is a sidebar area to the core content of the text. It represents an opportunity to talk about hot topics that are often not so easy to discuss. In other words, the “elephant in the room.” The co-founders wanted to provide a resource that would invite students, educators, parents, and anyone else who engages with the material to become critical thinkers, compassionate listeners, fact-based and respectful communicators, and action-oriented people with solutions.

“One of the things we wanted to do with this elephant experience is deal with topics like three fifths of the human being and reparations. What about tearing down statues? And are we in a post-racial society since we had a Black president for two terms? Did Africans sell Africans into slavery? Topics that people butt heads about or talk past each other or just unfriend each other on Facebook,” said Dr. Freeman.

The Black History 365 project has expanded beyond the talents of Dr. Milton, Dr. Freeman, and Dr. Cates. The team now includes 30 additional expert educators, trainers, and instructors. Eager readers will have to wait until August to receive the curriculum, but you can pre-order it for $175 at BlackHistory365education.com.

Powerful Stories Hidden in Abandoned Cemeteries

Powerful Stories Hidden in Abandoned Cemeteries

Gravestones at St. George Cemetery in southern Illinois. (Nick Schnelle for ProPublica Illinois)

This article originally appeared on ProPublica.org.


It’s impossible to see from the street, so you would never know it’s there.

To get to St. George Cemetery, especially its oldest section, you have to make your way past branches and thorns, across the weathered hills and over downed trees. Eventually, dozens of scattered headstones, some of them knocked over, come into view. And there, sitting upright is the gravestone of William Chapman, an African-American veteran of the Civil War who died March 21, 1904.

My interest in abandoned African-American cemeteries started in graduate school when I was assigned to write a story about a black woman named Rose Sturdivant Young, who was leading the charge to restore an abandoned cemetery in North Carolina. Her father, mother and other ancestors are buried there.

African-American cemeteries across the country have largely been neglected, their powerful histories obscured by weeds, debris and, as much as anything, the passage of time. Few people know their locations. Fewer still know the stories of the people buried there.

When I came to ProPublica Illinois as a reporting fellow, I saw a chance to look into this issue. I focused on two cemeteries in St. Clair County, a few miles southeast of St. Louis across the Mississippi River: St. George and Booker T. Washington Cemetery. I spent time hiking the grounds with folks who are trying to unearth and preserve the histories of the cemeteries, as well as trying to keep up the cemeteries themselves.

Both cemeteries once served as the final resting places for the black communities in and around St. Clair County. Of the thousands of people buried in the two cemeteries, close to 30 African-American veterans have been identified, including at least one — Chapman — from the Civil War. But they were more than just cemeteries. Black residents, according to local lore, used Booker T. Washington as a shelter during the East St. Louis race riots in 1917, when white mobs murdered dozens of black citizens. After the riots, many of the victims of the violence supposedly were buried there.

“The black cemeteries are being destroyed, accidentally or on purpose,” said Judy Jennings, a U.S. Air Force contract specialist and amateur historian who, for nearly two decades, has been researching the cemeteries, especially Booker T. Washington. “It’s important to preserve this history.”

It’s difficult to estimate the number of abandoned cemeteries among the thousands of licensed and unlicensed cemeteries in Illinois. The state doesn’t seem to keep track and no one, as far as I can tell, has studied the issue in enough detail to compile a list. But funeral home directors and others I spoke with said there could be many, from plots on private farms and other family property to large cemeteries like St. George and Booker T. Washington.

As segregation eased over the decades and other cemeteries began to allow blacks to be buried, Booker T. Washington and St. George became overgrown and neglected. Over time, many people forgot they existed.

Today, Booker T. Washington sits in a large bowl at the bottom of a hill and frequently floods. Conditions at St. George, which is hidden deep in the woods, are worse. In fact, logging trucks drove through the cemetery in July 2016 and crushed a number of the headstones. Police investigated the incident but no one was charged.

After spending time in St. Clair County and talking with descendants of some of those buried at Booker T. Washington and St. George, as well as with researchers like Jennings, I concluded the abandonment of the cemeteries was mostly the result of a series of unfortunate circumstances, instead of deliberate neglect.

Other abandoned cemeteries probably faced similar fates. People stopped burying loved ones there and, because these are not public lands, there’s no taxpayer money to maintain them. Over time, no one was left to do the weeding and other necessary upkeep. Owners — private citizens when they opened — died and, according to the St. Clair County Genealogical Society, which has studied the cemeteries, it was unclear who took over ownership.

Only a few descendants still try to maintain plots.

Perhaps the best we can do after so many years is recognize that these cemeteries were once central to African-American communities and learn what we can from them. If you are aware of any abandoned historically black cemeteries in Illinois or know of historical societies researching this area, please get in touch. Email me at [email protected].

 

11 Must-Read Books for Black History Month

11 Must-Read Books for Black History Month

Don’t Miss The Celebrating Our Heritage Section!

As Black History Month commences, here are a few must-have books from Black authors, spanning time periods, themes and genres. However, one thing they have in common is critical acclaim and a strong command of tackling the Black experience with grace, courage, originality, and historical context, making them essential reads during Black History Month and throughout the year.


1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece novel is frequently included on the list of must-read American books by one of the most prolific Black authors. The story follows an African American man whose color renders him invisible. It’s a groundbreaking take on a racially polarized society and the struggle to find oneself through it all.


2. Home by Toni Morrison

The 2012 novel by Morrison tells the story of a 20-something Korean War veteran and his journey home from an integrated army to a segregated society. The book was named one of the best novels of 2012 for its careful consideration of mental illness, race relations, family, history, and the concept of home.


3. How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston, a longtime writer for The Onion, serves up laughs with this collection of comical essays, such as “How to Speak for All Black People” and “How To Celebrate Black History Month.” Thurston covers social interactions and media portrayals with an insightful and satirical perspective.


4. God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson, creator of the Black National AnthemLift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” first published God’s Trombones in 1927 as a book of poems. The poems take on the structure of a traditional sermon and tell several different parables and Bible stories, some of which specifically focus on the African American story. Dr. Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates have called this collection one of Johnson’s most notable works.


5. The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates

From the best-selling author comes a poignant tale of life and race in the inner city. Coates explains how his father worked for his sons to obtain a free education and escape Baltimore’s drug culture. This inspiring book tells a powerful narrative about community and honoring your history across generations.


6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen is an award-winning collection of literature blurring the lines between poetry and criticism. Divided into seven chapters, it provides a powerful meditation on race that creates a lyrical portrait of our current social and political climate. Hailed as “a dazzling expression of the painful double consciousness of Black life in America,” according to the Washington Post. Citizen is said to feel like an “eavesdropping on America.”


7. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

You may think you know Malcolm X, but you’ve never read anything like Marable’s highly-regarded biography, which provides new perspectives and information on the controversial leader. Marable connects Malcolm’s life with other leaders, faith, and Black Nationalism in a masterful, historical context and call for social change.


8. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

In this novel, an African American teenager spends a summer with his brother in 1985 Sag Harbor. The work is more personal than most of Whitehead’s books and explores race, class, and commercial culture in light of a newer generation of Black Americans who are less marked by their color.


9. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

In a classic tale, Wilkerson chronicles the journey of three African Americans who took part in the massive movement from the South to the North, Midwest, and West that millions of Black families took in the 20th century. The Warmth of Other Suns is an acclaimed historical account that studies a definitive period in American history.


10. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes

This extensive collection of poems was hand-picked by Hughes, himself, prior to his death in 1967 and span his entire career. They offer a breathtaking look at being Black in America that is contemplative, celebratory, gut-wrenching and praiseworthy. From “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “The Weary Blues,” to “Still Here” and “Refugee in America,” this collection directs us to fight, believe, dream, and claim our self-worth.


11. Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals

In this riveting memoir, Beals recounts her time on the front lines of school desegregation as a member of the Little Rock Nine – the group of African-American students who famously integrated Arkansas’ Central High School. Her account of the harrowing experiences that forged her courage will stick with you long after the last page.


Video Courtesy of LEFT ON READ

Are there other titles that you’d like to add to the list? Share them below.