College of William and Mary to Digitize Records of Early African American Churches

The Special Collections Research Center of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, has been seeking to diversify its archives for many years. One of the goals is to add more African American voices to the collections.

“We have an excellent collection of Virginia family papers, but most of them are from White families,” said Jay Gaidmore, director of the special collections unit of the college’s libraries. “We want more letters, diaries, and photographs created by African-American businesses, families, and organizations. We want to make sure that their voices and experiences are present in the collection.”

To achieve this end, Gaidmore and his team have partnered with several Black churches in Williamsburg to add their church records to the library’s special collections. “There are a number of historic Black churches in Williamsburg that have important records about the people who lived in our community during tumultuous times in our history,” said Gaidmore. “Reading these records gives you a more complete understanding of the town’s history.” To date, the college has partnered with New Zion Baptist Church, Oak Grove Baptist Church, and First Baptist Church.

The First Baptist Church is one of the country’s earliest African-American congregations and was founded by free and enslaved African Americans in 1776. “We could never make our materials accessible without help from W&M Libraries,” said Connie Harshaw, president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation and a member of First Baptist Church. “We want First Baptist to be a gift we can share with the entire country because it is uncommon for an African-American church to be a continually sustainable congregation that was organized in 1776.”

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