W&M Libraries partners with local Black churches to preserve important church records

By Jordan Williams, William & Mary Libraries

More than a decade ago, William & Mary began the work of reconciling the institution and community with its history regarding the exploitation of African Americans through the eras of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation. Its reconciliation efforts include The Lemon Project, Center for Racial and Social Justice Speaker Series, and the Memorial to the Enslaved, to name a few. 

A digitized image of a record book from First Baptist Church

Understanding the importance of the effort, the staff at W&M Libraries looked for ways to contribute. Jay Gaidmore, director of the Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center (SCRC), had been working to diversify the special collections materials for many years. One of his goals was to add more African American voices to the collections. He knew that this could be an area where the library could connect to the reconciliation effort.  

“We have an excellent collection of Virginia family papers, but most of them are from white families,” Gaidmore said. “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 who 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.”

Gaidmore began reaching out to local black churches to see about providing assistance to preserve their historical records. He wanted to make sure that the churches understood that the library’s aim was to make the records available to all, not lock them behind walls. This process involved building trust with the church leaders and members.

A digitized image of records kept by First Baptist Church

“This project isn’t about taking stuff. It’s about building partnerships,” said Gaidmore. “We don’t want to take materials and hide them away. We want to help churches preserve their historical records, digitize them, and make them freely accessible online to anyone who wants to read them.”

To date, the SCRC has partnered with New Zion Baptist Church, Oak Grove Baptist Church and First Baptist Church.

For New Zion, the partnership began through a connection between Gaidmore and Jocelyn Henry-Whitehead M.Ed. ‘90, Ed.S. ‘95, Ed.D. ’04, wife to New Zion pastor, Dr. Robert Whitehead.

Henry-Whitehead said she initiated the relationship with Jay after learning of his desire to diversify the special collections. Henry-Whitehead eagerly donated professional and personal artifacts to support the Libraries.

“Without artifacts and written documentation, it can be a struggle to tell the African-American story,” she said. “I wanted to leave behind artifacts to help people tell the story of our family and the church.”

Henry-Whitehead inspired other New Zion members to donate materials to the SCRC.

“I think the things we’ve done from a family and church standpoint will encourage other members of the community to also be a part of the special collections,” she said. “We owe it to the community to donate our materials and artifacts to make sure these stories are preserved.”

Connie Harshaw, president of the Let Freedom Ring Foundation and a member of First Baptist Church, is working with W&M Libraries to digitize materials from First Baptist Church. The church is one of the country’s earliest African-American congregations and was founded by free and enslaved African Americans in 1776.

A digitized image of family records kept by First Baptist Church

Harshaw was able to mediate an agreement that allowed the Libraries to partner with First Baptist in digitizing, making more accessible, preserving and storing important church records.

First Baptist Church was in the national spotlight in 2016 when its Freedom Bell was used to mark the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama joined first lady Michelle Obama and four generations of a family descended from enslaved people rang the bell.

“Since we have become a national historic place, more people will request information about our church,” Harshaw said. “We could never make our materials accessible without help from W&M  Libraries. 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.”

Overall, Gaidmore is honored to take part in helping connect the dots of important history and unpack genealogy gaps that would help name unidentified enslaved.

“I believe the materials we are preserving are not only a part of black heritage but an important aspect of the American heritage,” Gaidmore. “It is our goal to make sure all aspects of history are preserved for the long-term and accessible to researchers for generations to come.”