Reflections on the Rowe, Ellis, and Spears Articles

The thing that immediately came to mind when reading the Rowe article is that it is the perfect definition of a promotional local history. There are only two paragraphs discussing racism outright with one being the last paragraph and the other being buried between a paragraph on African American businesses and community groups. If any other paragraph mentions any inequality between blacks and whites, it is automatically covered up by someone or some group (either white or black) successfully stepping in and stopping it. The article does not even mention sharecropping which was one of the biggest jobs for African Americans from 1865-1945. It seems that the city of Williamsburg is trying to make themselves look better by focusing more on the prominent African American figures of the town and their successes instead of the inequalities. Tourists buying this book at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center want to have a positive visit to this town, so Rowe and the publishers of this book are trying to keep the book that way.

That being said, the positive spin on this article was informative, because I had no idea how many strides African Americans made in Williamsburg during a time of such racial inequality. I was unaware that several African American figures served on political councils so soon after the Civil War ended, that there were many black business that were frequented by both whites and blacks, and that black and white families lived in the same neighborhood. It was also nice to see how helpful wealthy white figures like the Rockefellers were to the African American community. All in all it seems like Williamsburg was a pretty proactive community in terms of African American inequality, though the skewed tone and inclusion of information may prove to be more positive than the situation actually was.

Between the two articles about African Americans, I definitely preferred the Ellis article because it was more realistic than the Rowe article. He wrote it as more of an expose and revealed problems that Rowe chose to bury within anecdotes of success or not at all. It was especially interesting to compare Rowe and Ellis’s coverage of the displacement of families when Colonial Williamsburg was being restored since they had two completely different takes on it. Rowe focused on the locations to which African Americans moved and created communities while Ellis focused on the disparities between the two groups being forced to move. I preferred Ellis’s version since it was more realistic and helps the reader get a more accurate picture of the town and how similar it was to the rest of America at the time. Ellis’s well-rounded article is helped by his use of oral histories, because the people that he interviewed were willing to talk candidly about their experiences during the 20th century. It would be bad ethics to tell the interviewees to put a positive spin on their stories so it was easy for Ellis to get a true picture of the situation.

However, it would have been nice to see more about segregation in Williamsburg. For example, one of the oral histories only briefly mentions the lack of recreational areas for African Americans in the community. I remember that when I took Intro to American Studies with Professor Knight last semester, we read one of his articles on how African Americans were segregated in movie theaters both in American and in Williamsburg. The Kimball Theater was completely segregated for decades. It would have been nice to see this information included both to improve the coverage of segregation and to further allow readers to compare Williamsburg to the rest of the South and the country.

One piece of information that truly surprised me was the mitigating role that Williamsburg and the Rockefellers played in the building of equality. It makes me wonder how the tone in Williamsburg would have changed if Colonial Williamsburg was not present or if someone supporting segregation was in charge of Colonial Williamsburg. Would equality have been pushed so much or would the schools and Colonial Williamsburg have stayed segregated much longer than it actually did. I was also intrigued by the fact that many African American parents did not want their children to be integrated into white schools. This particular fact is not one that is ever mentioned in history books and it was a pleasant change for Ellis to include it in his article. It made me look at integration in a new light and understand why it took so long for schools to be integrated in Williamsburg. It was not just because of whites refusing to integrate schools but because of black disinterest (or possibly fear) to be in the same schools as whites.

I found the Spears article to be very similar in tone to the Rowe article. It seemed to be a combination of Kammen’s categories: promotional, inspirational for youth, and commemorative. The extremely positive tone and the repetition of the Greeks’ values of hard work and family both contribute to the promotional and inspirational tone. If any Greek child reads this essay, they will learn about their family and how they achieve success through hard work and will hopefully learn something. Tourists will see how much the town that they visited is shaped by Greek influence and have a new appreciation for both their work and the work of legal immigrants since they are portrayed in such a positive light. This is only supported by Spears’s first paragraph which is a stereotypical description of an immigrant and his family when he leaves for America. This adds a sappy tone that makes it more appealing to any tourist that enjoys a happy ending. It makes me wonder if the Greeks had problems settling into Williamsburg since basically none were mentioned. Like Rowe’s article, they were glossed over to increase the positive outlook that is so popular in local histories.

One question that I had while reading this article, however, was what happened to the Greek-owned restaurants when Colonial Williamsburg was being restored. While Rowe and Ellis mentioned that African American and white homes and businesses were bought out or forcibly removed to make room for the new tourist attraction, Spears only mentions that there were businesses in the area both before and after the restoration. Were they also removed and were just not mentioned, or did their close ties with the College and location in the commercial area of Colonial Williamsburg allow them to keep their businesses open? Other than that, it was a very informative, if a little bit overly positive, article about a lesser-known group of immigrants and their community in Williamsburg.


1 Response to “Reflections on the Rowe, Ellis, and Spears Articles”

  1. 1 dcpratt February 1, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    Nice job relating these essays to Kammen. How greatly does Ellis’ piece diverge from Kammen’s descriptions of typical local histories? Was it jarring to read it alongside the Rowe and Spears pieces, or, despite some differences, did all three pieces generally meet your expectations for local history?

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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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