(CNN) — The First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, is as old as America, having been founded by free and enslaved Blacks in 1776.
At that time, it was illegal for African Americans to gather, so the congregation initially met outside in secret until they were allowed to use a small building that became known as the Baptist Meeting House in the early 1800s.
On Thursday, Colonial Williamsburg announced that archaeologists have found what they believe to be the brick foundation of that structure -- the church's first permanent home.
"It's such an important piece of not just Williamsburg history, but American history, the founding of this church, and the fact that it's here in Williamsburg, that story needed to be told," Jack Gary, the director of archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg told CNN. "The site of where the church established their first permanent building was underneath the parking lot."
Gary said they consulted with the church about the project last year and began digging in September 2020 to try to find the original structure, which was used at least as far back as 1818 and was destroyed by a tornado in 1834.
The congregation built a new church building on the site in 1856. They sold the property to Colonial Williamsburg 100 years later and built their current church about half-mile away. The 1856 church was demolished to build the parking lot.
The team of archaeologists unearthed the newer building, but also found the 16x20 foot brick foundation of a smaller structure alongside a brick pavement on dirt that dates back to the early 1800s, Gary said.
The 1856 church was sold to Colonial Williamsburg and demolished to make room for a parking lot.
Courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
They also found artifacts, such as an 1817 coin that helped determine that this was the original church building.
"Yesterday, I stood in the middle of that 1818 foundation. And I gotta tell you, it is pretty compelling emotionally to do that," said Connie Matthews Harshaw, a church member and president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation, which collects and preserves artifacts from the church's history.
She moved to the area as a child, so her ancestors did not attend the church, but some current members are descendants of early church members.
"They are just overwhelmed with relief, joy," she said. "I think that it has served as a healing aspect for this community because they now know that the history that's there is being uncovered."
During the search for the church, archaeologists also found 25 human burial sites on the property. A meeting is scheduled for October 30 to discuss the findings and help descendants make decisions about the next steps in the investigation.
Gary said that about 52 percent of Williamsburg's population was Black in colonial times and that it is important to show their contributions to its history.
"Really any of the sites that we excavate, we have to start to think about what was the experience like for Black people at this site," Gary said.
He said they'll expand their dig around the 1/8th acre site to try to get more information about the area around the structure and hopefully find more architectural features that could help them recreate the structure more accurately.
They hope to be able to rebuild the structure on or near the original site by 2026, Gary said.
"Being able to tell people you're standing in that space is very powerful, so we wouldn't want to do it very far away," Gary said. "At the same time, we have preservation considerations. We want to make sure that the little bit that does remain of the original foundations are preserved underneath whatever it is that we recreate."
Harshaw said it was exciting and emotional for the church community to be able to find this part of their history that had been lost for so long.
"The fact that you can actually present this factual data to the descendants that are still here, and have been waiting for so long, and who thought that it would never happen. It's pretty emotional, pretty overwhelming," she said.
Gary said that church members, descendants and other members of the community have been able to visit the site, and that some have come by almost every day to observe their work and have a connection with the site.
"We get excited because as archaeologists we like to discover new things, but in this case, our discovery is something that is incredibly meaningful for the community," he said. " It's very rewarding for us to be able to do that and to see their reaction which was one of shared excitement."
The church is one of the oldest Black churches in the United States and is celebrating its 245th anniversary.