Descendant shares untold story of local white landowner giving land to freed, enslaved African Americans

Posted at 8:18 AM, Nov 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-06 10:19:18-05

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - In the 1800s, Jesse Cole owned a plot of land along Nassau Street in Williamsburg. It was during a time when slavery was a reality of life in the south.

Even in the midst of the time period, Cole gave this plot of land to a group of freed and enslaved African-Americans who gathered to worship. Laws at the time forbade African-Americans from gathering.

"He was so moved by what he heard, both the singing and the preaching,” Anne Geddy Cross, one of Cole’s descendants, said. “His story came down through the family."

Cross said Cole was also a storekeeper and postmaster. She added he did own slaves, but believed in treating others with respect and compassion.

Cross first heard Cole's story when she was a child.

"I didn't understand it, I had to ask when I was a little bit older,” Cross said. “'Why were they meeting in the woods?' The slave laws and slavery and all were explained to me."

That group of African-Americans went on to start the First Baptist Church, a church that's existed for more than 150 years.

"I wanted to know what would compel a white townsman to donate his land when it was illegal for African-Americans to gather,” Connie Harshaw, president of Let Freedom Ring, said.

She is also a member of the historic First Baptist Church, currently located on Scotland Street.

"If it wasn't for Jesse Cole, Gowan Pamphlet, Reverend Moses and all the people who had the vision and the heart and who they trusted back in the 18th century, there would be no First Baptist Church," Harshaw said.

Cole didn't just own this land; he actually owned more land in this section of Williamsburg, including the plot of land across the street. The original house where he lived is still standing on the corner of Nassau Street and Duke of Gloucester Street.

Archaeologists are excavating the land, trying to learn more about the original First Baptist Church.

Cross and Harshaw said there's a lesson to be learned today from a white man and African Americans working together.

"We all need to step back, just love our neighbors as ourself,” Cross said. “Treat each other with decency and move forward."