Rowe and Ellis Reflection

African Americans in Williamsburg, 1865-1945 and The African American Community in Williamsburg (1947-1998), written by Linda Rowe and Rex M. Ellis respectively, explore a sector of society often untouched by local histories. When reading and evaluating local histories, readers must question the authors’ motivation.  Ellis answers this question in the first paragraph of his piece in claiming that, “not only is African-American history integral to an understanding of the area in general, but it is important that the black historical perspective be preserved so that future generations may learn from the challenges blacks have faced, their achievements, and the wisdom they have gained through their struggles.” Both Ellis and Rowe strive to present unbiased and well-rounded representations of the African American community in Williamsburg, Virginia. In my opinion, both succeed in their endeavors.

In her article, Rowe highlights the educational developments spurred by the actions of the African American community.  The first school built by the Williamsburg School Board was a school for African Americans. However, Rowe does not explain why this was the case.  Perhaps the town wished to establish a physical separation in education as quickly as possible.  Regardless, the African American community worked tirelessly to help fund this as well as future academic ventures.  These efforts eventually led to a state of the art high school for African Americans called Bruton Heights.  Part of the school’s appeal was that it was also used as a community center. Rowe also discusses the role of African Americans in the work force.  One picture in her article depicts white and black employees working in a shop side by side.  This photograph raises questions about how frequently this occurred. Did this tolerant behavior permeate all workspaces in Williamsburg? Certainly not. Pictures are often worth a thousand words, as the saying goes; so, I really appreciated the plethora of photographs present in both articles.

Rowe’s article lacked much description of African American life by whites.  While a history about the black population alone of Williamsburg deserves to be written, I think Rowe’s article could have been strengthened by the juxtaposition of African American and white perspectives and opinions. This additional perspective could have provided readers with additional information about how black residents of Williamsburg were viewed and treated.The article by Ellis, however, claims from the beginning to be about African-American history, so a reader knows exactly what to expect.

The most interesting aspect of Ellis’ article was the personal confession about the black condition in Williamsburg by  Rockefeller’s chauffer.  This example of local history, straight from the source, is rare and very valuable because it “[represents] one of the few assessments of the black community by a black.” I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mr. Hudson’s testimony because of its authenticity and interesting subject matter. For this reason, I preferred the Ellis article to the Rowe article. The Ellis article also provided the interesting idea that some black residents of Williamsburg yearned for the days when schools were not integrated; they felt that black teachers were more invested in the education and success of black children than were white teachers. I found this point to be extremely interesting because the articles both focused on how hard the African American community fought for equality. I had never considered this point of view until reading Ellis’ article, and it makes sense to me now.

I connected on a deeper level with Ellis’ article because of his discussion of displacement at the hands of the reconstruction of Colonial Williamsburg and its effects on the African American community.  Having focused on and grappled with the idea of place for the past week, I was able to better comprehend the pain of a group of people who were forced out of, not only their homes, but everything comfortable and familiar to them.  According to Ellis, displacement “left many African Americans wondering whether they could find new communities that provided them with the same sense of well-being, comfort, and identity that they had come to know in their original homes.”  This pain and confusion can be likened, albeit on a smaller scale, to my return to my childhood home after a semester at college.  Everything felt different.  Some of my favorite restaurants were gone, new stoplights appeared out of nowhere, roads were changed and re-routed, and the grocery store had been completely rearranged.  While this example seems trivial compared to the uprooting of an entire community and way of life, I felt a smaller version of the disorientation that a change of place can cause. I thought that this was a very effective thing to include in a local history because most people have experienced a loss of place or idea of place at some point in their lives. It is important to focus on, not only what a community of people have gained and accomplished, but also what they have lost in the process.

1 Response to “Rowe and Ellis Reflection”

  1. 1 sgglos February 6, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Excellent job synthesizing and comparing these two essays.

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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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