Hanbury Preservation Consulting

P.O. Box 6049
Raleigh, NC 27628 USA
(919) 828-1905 phone

First Baptist Church

First Baptist Church in Williamsburg is significant for its social history as well as its architectural history. The congregation is the oldest, continuously active African American congregation in the United States, established in the 1770s. Despite religious and racial discrimination, the congregation has consistently and actively advocated for expanded opportunities for African Americans. It housed a school operated by Quakers in the post Civil War era. In the 1870s its minister was elected to statewide office. The church was integrally involved in the activities of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, hosting the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and protesting local unfair hiring practices.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Rockefeller-funded restoration of Williamsburg involved the demolition and removal of post-eighteenth-century buildings, including First Baptist's 1856 sanctuary, to recreate a colonial townscape within a roughly 120 acre area along the city's main street. The Foundation offered the congregation a new site, outside the restored area, with sufficient funding to build a new church. The congregation selected Norfolk architect Bernard Spigel to design the church. Not known for his ecclesiastical work, Spigel's design borrowed heavily from his recent commission for an African American congregation in nearby Suffolk. The Foundation's influence extended to the design of the new church, as Spigel adopted an architectural vocabulary that included compass-headed windows, a Chippendale railing at the tower, and a tawny beige paint scheme for the external wood trim that is ubiquitous in Colonial Williamsburg.

First Baptist Church was listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register in March 2017  and on the National Register of Historic Places in June 2017.  The National Register nomination was co-authored by David Lewes of the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research and Mary Ruffin Hanbury of Hanbury Preservation Consulting.  The nomination can be found here