Three men whose graves were found at the original site of one of the nation’s oldest Black churches were members of its congregation in the early 19th century, a team of archaeologists and scientists in Virginia announced Thursday.
The First Baptist Church was formed in 1776 by free and enslaved Black people in Williamsburg, Virginia’s colonial capital. Members initially gathered in fields and under trees in defiance of laws that prevented African Americans from congregating.
More than 60 burial plots have been identified. Thursday’s announcement confirmed what oral histories had long told — that previous generations were buried on the land before it was paved over in the 20th century.
“Now we know they’re ours — they’re ours,” church member Connie Matthews Harshaw said Thursday. “Those people under that soil are of African descent. We go from there.”
Three sets of remains were chosen for examination. They underwent DNA testing, bone analysis and the evaluation of archaeological evidence that was found, including 19th century coffin nails. The wood from the hexagonal coffins is long gone.
Only one set of remains could provide adequate DNA, which can indicate race, said Raquel Fleskes, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut who conducted the analysis.
Those remains belonged to a Black man between the ages of 16 and 18 who stood 5 feet, 4 inches tall. His grave contained a clothing button that was made from animal bone and still carried some cotton fiber, said Jack Gary, Colonial Williamsburg’s director of archaeology.
The young man’s grave appeared to be marked by an upside-down, empty wine bottle. His coffin was likely moved from a previous location based on the large number of nails — possibly used to reinforce the coffin — and the jumbled way his bones came to rest.
The young man’s teeth indicated some kind of stress, which could have been malnutrition or disease, said Joseph Jones, a research associate with William & Mary’s Institute for Historical Biology.
“Childhood health is a pretty good indicator of a population,” Jones added.
Michael Blakey, the institute’s director, added that few African Americans in Williamsburg were free at the time.
“It either represents the conditions of an enslaved childhood or far less likely — but possibly — conditions for a free African American in childhood,” Blakey said.
The two other sets of remains belonged to men between the ages of 35 to 45 and possibly older, based on the analyses of their bones and teeth.
One of them stood 5 feet, 8 inches and was possibly the oldest of the three. His remains were found with a copper straight pin that likely bound clothing or a funeral shroud.
The other man stood 5 feet, 7 inches and was buried in a vest and trousers. His leg bones indicated the repetitive use of certain muscles, suggesting the heavy labor of someone who was enslaved.