“They’re ours”: DNA identifies remains under colonial-era Black church in Williamsburg
For years, nobody knew the parking lot on Nassau Street hid bones underneath.
Archaeologists from William & Mary found human remains there in 2021.
In colonial times, it was the site of First Baptist Church, a building and congregation built by Black people.
Current congregants want to know who worshiped at the church before they did. They hoped the remains would allow them to connect current members to past ones.
“We asked for almost the impossible,” said current First Baptist congregation member Connie Harshaw.
“But I need everyone to know: They’re ours.”
Only one of three sets of remains could be fully analyzed. That set was likely a teenage boy, between 16 and 18 years old and buried in the 1800s.
The plates of his skull weren’t fused yet, which helped them determine an age range. They also were able to tell he had central African heritage.
DNA analysis of the other two sets of remains came back suggesting those people were men and likely also buried in the 1800s.
Raquel Fleskes is an anthropological geneticist at the University of Connecticut. She worked on the DNA analysis and said the way the bones were buried determined which DNA survived.
“When you have poor osteological preservation, the sample will often be degraded,” she said.
The other remains were likely older Black men, said Joe Jones, director of the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research.
One had a ridge on the back of his femur that would have connected to his hamstring, indicating manual labor.
He also had unusual, sloping wear on some of his teeth, which Jones said is sometimes seen in leather workers – who occasionally used their teeth in their jobs.
The exhumed bones are going to be reinterred where they were found.
First Baptist moved from its original location on Nassau Street in the 1950s, when Colonial Williamsburg bought the land it sat on.
The new church building moved to Scotland Street, where other Black homes and businesses were concentrated during segregation.
The site on Nassau Street became a parking lot.
Colonial Williamsburg plans to reconstruct the first church on the Nassau Street site and open it to the public by 2026, bringing to bear a Black narrative at Colonial Williamsburg that isn’t centered on slavery.