Reflections on Rowe, Ellis, and Spears

Rowe and Ellis

Rowe’s chapter was about African-American life in Williamsburg from 1865-1945.  In the eighty years’ worth of history Rowe discussed economic, housing, and political conditions from the Reconstruction through the Restoration (which is a ridiculous phrase on paper).  Before the Restoration, as Rowe describes, Williamsburg was an ‘ordinary’ Southern town and conditions for African-Americans aligned with what was happening in the rest of the South, including Jim Crow laws.  Unsurprisingly, most African-Americans found work as laborers or servants for the white population, which they outnumbered at many points.  What interested me was how much the black community invested in education.  Rowe makes it clear that a lot of the money required just to operate grade schools for black children came from the community itself, especially through churches.  The history of Bruton Heights, which a few Google searches revealed is now owned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, fascinated me.  While it was only around for a couple of decades as a school for African-Americans and community center, it seemed extremely relevant.  Although a lot of the money came from the City and the Rockefeller family, it seemed to be important as a symbol of self-sufficiency in the Jim Crow era.

I especially found the Rockefeller family’s involvement interesting.  Rowe and Ellis both noted that the family, not from Williamsburg, was more progressive than the town and kept facilities in Colonial Williamsburg integrated.  In addition, family land and money went to Bruton Heights, and they supported integration when it came to the community via federal law in later decades.  However, the Restoration and development in Williamsburg around Colonial Williamsburg and the tourism industry contributed to harsher segregation and discrimination in the community.  Rowe notes that the vote to sell City land to become Colonial Williamsburg came from the white community, and that black landowners may not have received proper reimbursement.  While the neighborhoods had been mixed, they became segregated when people moved away from the Restoration.  In addition, the increased prosperity Williamsburg enjoyed in the 20th century mostly went to the white community and to the new, white-dominated communities in the area.  So while Rockefeller tried to help race relations, the changes he introduced produced a more segregated society.


What piqued my interest about this chapter was how much the College contributed to the Greek community, mostly because it’s still true today.  We might not have a Mr. Steve with his big black book giving out mugs at the Leafe on credit, but the delis and other local restaurants like Sal’s are important to the College.  The image of (possibly drunk?) students wandering just off campus in search of food other than the same old stuff at the dining halls is easy to conjure.  I also appreciated learning where the name “Mama Steve” came from, assuming there’s only one!  I think the Greek community in this chapter really tied together the other groups in Williamsburg.  By adding to the hospitality industry in Williamsburg, the Greeks brought together college students, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg, and other hungry folks in town.

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

  1. 1 dcpratt February 1, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    How well do these histories of the Williamsburg Greek and African-American communities fit with popular ideas (and your own understanding) of the kind of place Williamsburg is? Likewise, how closely did these essays align with Kammen’s description of the ways in which local histories tend to be written?

Comments are currently closed.


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.

Add Users

If you want to add yourself to this blog, please log in.