Cultural awakening in the Highland Park Community

When two friends and I decided to search for off-campus housing over the summer, we quickly became familiar with the surrounding neighborhoods. Within a 10-15 minute walking distance to campus there are generally two options: The posh, near-Colonial Williamsburg neighborhoods where the grass is always freshly cut and parking decals are required and enforced or the areas my friends affectionately refer to as simply the less desirable places to live.  Off-campus housing for most students is found at the Lawson Enterprise apartments and Highland Park, Williamsburg oldest African-American community.  This year, my friends, Anna and Meghana, and I decided to live in the Highland Park Community for its close proximity to campus and affordable rent.  We are aware of three other homes that are being rented by William and Mary students, yet besides us, the majority of the homes belong to predominately African-American families who’ve been living in Williamsburg for generations.

This assignment awakened some thoughts my housemates and I have felt and shared ever since we moved-in: as non-black women, new to the community, would we ever fit in?  Would our differences (class, race) cause tensions in the community? Would we be treated with hostility or welcomed by our neighbors?  After living here for six months these questions still enter conversation at dinnertime.  I took this assignment prompt as an opportunity to learn more about my neighborhood, talk to some neighbors and visit a place I pass by every day but have never entered, the Union Baptist Church on Dunning Street.

The first thing I did on Thursday was go talk to my next-door neighbors to find out more about the functions at the Church and if I would be welcomed to attend a service on Sunday.  They encouraged me to attend the service, although none of them personally were members, and directed me to a home a few doors down from mine to speak to the Highland Park Community representative, Estereen. When I arrived at Estereen’s home, she answered the door in a hurry and announced she was heading to a community meeting at the Union Baptist Church.  When I stated my purpose, she invited me to join her at the meeting since she said I was a part of the community and that she likes the energy of young people.  I agreed and walked over with the surprisingly energetic, elderly woman, I had just met, yet who talked to me as if she was my own grandmother.   On our short walk over, I learned the Church not only serves as a place for bible service and choir practice, but also as a gathering place for homeowner association meetings and general community concerns on select Thursdays.  I was lucky enough to have met the community organizer right before a meeting attended by concerned residents of the Highland Park Community and what seemed like a city councilman (I unfortunately didn’t get his name) about the issue of parking passes required on Virginia Ave specifically, and other streets around the college.  Some of the community members complained that they couldn’t afford to pay $35-40 for the parking pass required by the city to park in areas around the college and Colonial Williamsburg.   One man said that the parking issue inhibited his ability to attend sporting events at the college.  Estreen chimed in that people in her community could afford the pass if they chose to spend their money more wisely and learn to save.  The representative said money for the parking pass was effective in containing the number of cars parked on those streets.

The room was filled entirely with African-American residents of Highland Park, reflecting the demographics of the neighborhood.  I felt like I stood out, as an outsider, in the position of the observer, yet didn’t feel uncomfortable, at least not yet.  The people I met were very friendly and asked me what I was studying in school and where I was from – essentially “othering” me from their community and placing distance between us, which Portelli suggests can create a “condition for a more effective and conscious participation” (37).  A few suggested I come back for service on Sunday and come to a cookout at the Highland Park picnic tables.  After the meeting, Estereen went around and collected money to buy flowers for a recently deceased member of the community, suggesting a close-knit and supportive atmosphere. For the most part, I felt welcomed and felt people were very approachable and amicable.

However, there was one incident where I felt very uncomfortable and was reminded of how distant and different I was from some members of my temporary community. After the meeting, I went back to Estereen’s home to ask her more about the community and her experience as a previous member of the church.  I wanted to know why she chose to go to a Baptist church further away than the one conveniently located down her street. Her response caught me off-guard.  She said the member of the church learned that “the pastor was a faggot” and loved gay people, and that made her feel like he wasn’t doing the Lord’s work.  Herself and other members of the church decided to leave and attend other Baptist churches in the area like St. John’s on Penniman Road. until the recent replacement of pastors which has attracted some members back. As a native-Washingtonian where same-sex marriage is legal, where my neighbors are a happily married gay couple, and as a member of the W&M Lambda Alliance with close gay friends, her homophobic remarks were highly offensive, and yet I took a hard gulp and kept my mouth shut remembering that I have to play the role of an objective historian.  Was it appropriate to challenge my interviewee? Could I have said that I felt offended by that statement? I thought against it because then I would lose the trust that I’d been working to build for the past two hours and perhaps create some degree of tension with a neighbor.  Encountering unapologetic homophobia is something I expect to encounter as I research the issues the LGBTIQ community faces in retirement in Williamsburg, especially after this incident.


The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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