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COMMENTARY: Grateful for hidden stories of our shared histories in Virginia
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COMMENTARY: Grateful for hidden stories of our shared histories in Virginia

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Couple weekends ago, I had the pleasure of attending a gala for the Let Freedom Ring Foundation. Established in 2018, it is the official fundraising arm of the Historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, and its mission is to collect and preserve the church’s artifacts, landscape and legacy.

The sold-out black-tie fête drew a few hundred people to the Williamsburg Lodge and had all the usual trappings—good food, company, music and celebrities. They included Danny Glover, the award-winning actor, producer and humanitarian, and singer Jennifer Holliday, also an award-winning entertainer notable from her performance as Effie White in the Broadway tour of “Dreamgirls.”

Amid attendees (including myself) trying to get a mug with Glover or swooning over the sultry sounds from Holliday, gala organizers wanted to remind everyone about some hidden history from one of the nation’s oldest continuously operating Black congregations, founded in 1776 by free and enslaved Africans.

“We are not taught that the first ordained Baptist minister in the country was Gowan Pamphlet, a Black preacher at this historic church, who was accepted by the Dover Convention. We are not taught that this church was, and remains, a beacon in the community for more than 245 years,” foundation President Connie Harshaw said in an email. “The foundation is needed to fill the gaps and educate our community on its rich, diverse, painful and often shameful but also proud history—American history!”

Of the many things we may be grateful for this Thanksgiving and holiday season—a time to gather safely with loved ones amid a hopefully waning pandemic, and a time for sweet indulgence—there is one more thing we can add. We should be grateful for the shared stories in Virginia’s history, especially those bringing a fuller narrative of historic Black churches. In the case of the Historic First Baptist Church, it’s a story that has been shared for years within the community, if not widely.

Its origins date to a nondenominational congregation of both free and enslaved African Americans who worshiped in the open air under a brush arbor at Green Spring Plantation, just west of Williamsburg, during the American Revolution era, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. In 1776, Williamsburg resident Robert F. Cole invited the congregation to use his carriage house for services.

After decades of growth, acceptance by the Dover Baptist Association and even surviving a natural disaster, the several-hundred-member congregation finally established a home in a brick building on Nassau Street in 1856.

During the mid-1950s, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation purchased the land the church was on as part of its restoration of the area, and it razed the 1856 building, turning it into a parking lot. The congregation relocated to Scotland Street in a new brick building, partly because its history “did not fit the fabric of the story woven for Colonial America from an Anglo perspective,” Harshaw wrote.

In 2016, the church came to the national forefront when its freedom bell was brought to Washington and rung to mark the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Since the foundation was established, the church has partnered with Colonial Williamsburg and archeologists to unearth the church’s original brick foundation on Nassau Street, which was discovered last fall. The group also located artifacts, at least two dozen burial sites and other information to share about the people who lived and worshiped at this site in 18th-century Virginia.

The foundation produced a mini-documentary, “History Half Told is Untold,” which begins to tell the complete story of a time in history when many facts were ignored or covered up. The foundation also received a matching grant of $100,000 from the National Fund for Sacred Places and the National Trust for Historic Preservation so it can continue to present this American story at the Scotland Street location.

Christy S. Coleman, executive director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and former head of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, grew up at this church, which has a robust ministry that has shared the church’s story for decades. The work of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation helps expand the effort and take the church’s story to the next level.

“We should be thankful as a nation as whole [that] we are being exposed more and more across the racial divide about shared history ... even though these histories have existed for decades in communities,” Coleman said. “These stories are there for all us to take pride in, and we should be thankful for it.”

There are many Black churches—Richmond’s Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church comes to mind—with a rich history shared for decades and told on a larger scale.

For this Thanksgiving, I am grateful I was able to part take in a gala to support telling the stories of our shared histories. Let’s be grateful for those working to bring them to larger audiences.

Lisa Vernon Sparks is Opinions co-editor. Contact her at: lvernonsparks@timesdispatch.com

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