Archive for the 'Reflections on Local History Essays' Category

The 300 Year Old Relationship: The Town and Gown of Williamsburg

Reading Thaddeus W. Tate, Jr.’s article on the relations between the locals and students of Williamsburg made me realize the continuity here and the complex and ever-changing role we (both students and the host community alike) play as a vital part of the community. It seems as thought the relationship began in terms of the co-existence of town politics and the foundation of the College, with James Blair bearing the royal charter in 1693. Apparently, one young orator said, “the Colledge will be a great help towards the making of a Town and the Town toward improving the Colledge,” setting the stage for a successful vote to bring the functions of education and government together.

I was surprised that it wasn’t until 1729, that the six professors came on offering advanced instruction in moral and natural philosophy, two main components of liberal arts in the 18th century, and in divinity. I originally assumed that those courses and options would have been already at the College. I also found extremely interesting the battle between the College and the town during the Revolution.

Towards of the end of Tate’s article, he does briefly mention the retirement communities within Williamsburg, adding another reason to the town’s expansion over time.

Post-WWII growth of Colonial Williamsburg

In 1953, Carlisle H. Humelsine became the president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and moved the vision for the area forward with an emphasis on the educational expansion and economic needs of this historic place.  The goodwill relationship between the public and the CW Foundation was essential to its ongoing success.  The desire to increase public access to colonial artifacts made the development The DeWitt-Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery alongside the Public Hospital restoration in a shared space a workable solution for the problem of limited space for housing and showing important items.  Expansion required funding.

By the mid-seventies fundraising was emphasized and the American public responded by donating $50,000 raised from 300 donors.  Development of other projects to support growing tourism ensured that visitors would have comfortable lodgings, places to eat and things to see related to the Colonial Williamsburg showcase of historic Williamsburg.

Beyond the development of tourist infrastructure the initiative to eliminate automobiles from the Duke of Gloucester Street and completion of the Colonial National Parkway from Jamestown to Williamsburg was an asset to an already remarkable attraction.

The addition of an Information Center and an orientation film, Willilamsburg The Story of a Patriot, filmed on location in 1956 entertained and educated millions of visitors.  The careful training and attention to historic detail in the dress and conduct of interpreters added to the feeling of authenticity in the historic area.  Research has always been an important aspect in the delivering of a quality experience to tourists.  William and Mary faculty, scholars and the Institute of Early American History and Culture, participated in lecturing interpreters on colonial history to ensure authentic representations.  Close attention to accurately representing history ensures ongoing public confidence.  Visitors are confident that what they hear and see at Colonial Williamsburg is as authentic an experience as can be had in modern times.  This experience includes interpretations of Colonial African American experiences.

Celebrations have been added to expand the economic opportunities for CW and provides visitor events that keep people coming to the area all year around.  In the colder months during the Chirstmas season there is the Grand Illumination of the City and decorating of household doors with natural items like fruit and greenery that is a famous and widely anticipated annual event.  The Fife and Drum corp was developed in 1963 as a compliment to the established militia corp and is now seen as “our signature” according to Charles Longsworth as a symbol of Colonial Williamsburg.

Other economic enterprises advantageous to the area included the development of a Craft House to make reproductions for sale, and the restoration and opening of Jamestown.  Many distinguished visitors to the area, like Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1957, made it a desireable place to visit.  My own parents honeymooned here in 1957.

Later development, like Busch Gardens, Kingsmill Resort and Busch Corporate Park in the 1970s further expanded the economic base of the area and increased tourism and relocations to the surrounding community around Williamsburg.  The additions became important to the economic health of James City County and Williamsburg.  It has been essential that the locals work with the tourism in the area to ensure ongoing success.  The goodwill component of local businesses, residents and institutions like the College of William and Mary is an essential component of the area’s success as a tourist destination.  Everyone takes pride in the quiet patriotism that exists in the area and works to preserve the humble heritage that was Reverend Goodwin’s vision and legacy for “a small Tidewater town”.

Thank Goodness for Goodwin …

It is remarkable that a modest desire to preserve the history of a local church in the 1920s led to the preservation of an entire area of historical significance to the United States.  I was struck by Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin’s success with convincing John D Rockefeller to fund the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.  Goodwin had a passionate desire to preserve what he understood as “an appreciation for the town’s socical, cultural, and political history”.  This was also remarkable in that the focus of the country at the time was to “progress” in industry, yet individuals like Rockefeller could see how preservation of history might be both philanthropic and profitable.

A project like Colonial Williamsburg’s restoration beginning in the 1920s was developed with an eye toward making it a kind of adult historical Disneyland.  Rockefeller’s financial backing insured that architects of the highest reputation, like Perry, Shaw & Hepburn of Boston would see to detailed restoration of the initial buildings of importance like the Governor’s Palace, Wren Building and the Capitol.  Goodwin must have been more than a little anxious, but also very excited having day-to-day oversite responsibilities for such a large scale project.  The plans just mushroomed and with Rockefeller money the growth of the project was exponential. A decalogue of resolutions kept the project firmly rooted in the purpose of restoration making sure that only accurate portrayals of Colonial American architecture and interiors were re-created in exacting detail.

The focus and integrity of the entire project came through when I read the essay.  Marketing the project to the public began right from the start. Public relations started with contacting “outside specialists” to join the project who became ambassadors and “talked it up” to the public.  To be sure these were people with a wide sphere of influence and financial means in their communities.

Within a decade of work on the project it was impossible to keep the identity of its benefactor under wraps.  In 1928 it was revealed that Rockefeller money was in the project and the even more companies of the best in the business came forward to work on it.  The beautiful landscaping and gardens around the earliest restorations are the result of the initial work of Arthur A. Shurcliff (1870-1957).

Numerous committess were put in charge of various aspects of preservation.  The capitol site was the beginning of the physical work of the project in 1928 as well as the building itself, folowed by Raleigh Tavern, the Wren Building, and the Governor’s Palace.  Although it was intended that all work continue with attention to careful excavation, Kenneth Chorley, chief administrative officer of the resotration was under time constraints and rushed some of the collection of artifacts or overlooked it entirely.  Concerns that items of interest would be lost caused Rutherford Goodwin to establish and archaeological laboratory.  This lab cleaned, treated and stored many artifacts from the sitework during restoration.

By the 1930s the Governor’s Palace was completed.  The Rockefeller family had Bassett Hall restored and made it a temporary residence for two months out of the year.  The loved being part of the project and I gathered from the article that to some extent they enjoyed relative anonymity in the community when they visited.

Beyond the money to restore the buildings, numerous committees formed around the project in the local community focused on preservation, promotion and educational purposes for the area.  A distinct emphasis on education was put on the table and was the basis for the creation of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation that endures today.  Its purpose was to relate local history of Williamsburg its importance to the United States as a country.  There was intense political pressure to keep Williamsburg in the national spotlight.  Despite the Depression years the restoration continued and in 1934 President Roosevelt visited and claimed the Duke of Gloucester Street, “the most historic avenue in all America” officially announcing Colonial Williamsburg open to the public.

Goodwin’s vision, Rockefeller’s money, the work of hundreds of people literally in the trenches, as well as dedicated experts in the fields of architecture, history and public relations made possible the preservation of a small town that was significant in the Nation’s history.  It is extraordinary that one man during the boom of industrialization and big business in the 1920s connected with the right people to bring such a humble project to fruition.  The preservation of this small town provided future generations with a place to enjoy a break from their hectic lives and travel back in time back to the mid-eighteenth century in America.

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.


Rowe & Ellis Readings

The Rowe and Ellis readings introduced to me a history of Williamsburg I—and presumably many other students and residents—have totally overlooked.  Like Maggie, I was surprised to learn that there were more black residents than white in 1860, over a hundred of whom were free, skilled tradesmen or worked on the water.  I would never have guessed.  These histories describe the development of African American schools in the Williamsburg community and part played by the church in supporting the schools.

When the first black school, James City County Training School, outgrew itself in the late 1930s, the Bruton Heights school was built.  I was interested to learn that the Rockefellers were strong supporters of the local African American educational facilities, contributing $50,000 to the construction of this new school.  The space also included a community center with a library, gym, clinic, shops, and later, movie theater facilities.  Black troops stationed nearby would use the space for dances and parties.  By creating this space for themselves, the black community formed strong bonds. Bruton Heights served as a hub for local African American culture through the 1940s and beyond.

Ellis picks up the story in the late 1940s, naming some of the black neighborhoods and prominent families of the area, and then describes the struggle for integration in the 1950s.  Governor Stanley and Senator Byrd worked through the legislature to ensure that schools stayed segregated in a movement called “massive resistance” (Ellis 235).  In 1958, even after the US Supreme Court had ruled to integrate schools, a law was passed that forced integrated schools in the state to close. Many organizations spoke out against this law and the same year, a Federal District Court ruled that this massive resistance violated the Constitution.  Williamsburg schools, however, were not fully desegregated for another ten years.  As integration took place, schools named after important black figures were renamed. In the midst of all the inequalities black residents faced daily—in the schools, in businesses, in the workplace—the church, Ellis says, held everyone together, and acted as the leading voice of the black community.

Ellis does note toward the end that though progress has certainly been made, Williamsburg is still a racially separate community, as blacks and whites live in different areas and socialize in different places—which we have all probably observed firsthand.  He mentions that this “does not seem to be a major concern to either community” (241).  This may be true, but I think it might be an oversimplification.  That statement makes it sound like both are complacent with their roles in the community, but I wonder if some of the less privileged families living on the outskirts of town would agree.

Oxrieder and Chappell

The two essays I was assigned to read, “Williamsburg Claims the Amenities of Life, 1880-1920,” by Julia Woodbridge Oxrieder and “Greening the Grid: Chandler Court, Pollard Park, and the Early Suburbanization of Williamsburg,” by Edward Chappell, both exposed me to aspects of Williamsburg with which I was not previously familiar.  I truly enjoyed imagining the picture that Oxrieder painted about the character of Williamsburg before the creation of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation because the little city looked, to me, like more of a real place back then, rather than a purposefully constructed anachronism.  In particular, I found it intriguing to hear that Williamsburg once had “five blacksmiths, two corn and flour mills, a saw mill, and twenty-two general merchant” (Oxrieder 157) and was surrounded by farmland.  Additionally, I couldn’t help but notice how perfectly Oxreider’s discussion of the Women’s Temperance Union and the Village Improvement Society fit into the broad trends of the Progressive Era – white women, as beacons of Euro-American exceptionalism, attempted to uplift those whom they saw as poor, diseased, and morally inferior.  Despite my enjoyment of the piece, I was bothered by the fact that Oxrieder only discussed pleasant and uplifting activities of the mostly white upper and middle class.

Chappell’s discussion of early city planning of the expansion of residential neighborhoods held my interest because I have explored some of the neighborhoods and areas of Williamsburg that he brings up with my own two feet and my own two eyes.  For instance, Chappell discusses the strange topography of the land opposite Jamestown Rd. from the college.  I have always loved that neighborhood, with its twisting roads and unexpected ravines, and have often wondered how a city planner my go about building on such land.  I was glad to hear that Chappell disapproves of the current strategy of suburban sprawl occurring around the Williamsburg area, but also rather amused that he so boldly stated his opinion.

Both of these articles are fairly short and I would encourage you to read them!  They are well worth a gander.

The Sleepy Town of Williamsburg

When the City of Williamsburg failed to set aside the $50 it takes to pay the man to wind the clock in town, the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote: “No one really believes that this town of twilight and dreams cares for the clock.  It has too much sense.  It doesn’t really care when it gets up, if ever, or when it goes to bed, if never.” (Oxreider 157).  Indeed, I have the very same perception of the Williamsburg area.  To me, Williamsburg is a sleepy town where the elderly come to retire and the young come to study.  There is no real commerce in the town, its chief capital coming from visitors from out of town or out of state.  However, Oxrieder goes on to argue that the Richmond Times Dispatch’s (and my own) conception of Williamsburg as sleepy and slow is far from accurate.  She cites the Eastern State Hospital and the College of William & Mary as her primary sources of energy and activity.  Perhaps she is right, but these locations provide activity for the city for only a set amount of time.  For example, the patients of the Eastern State Hospital only provide activity inside the hospital just as the College only awakens the city during the academic year.  Furthermore, the College of William & Mary, as evidenced by the success achieved by its graduates, is only a stop on the way to a bigger and better environment.  Few, if any, graduates of the College stay in Williamsburg to pursue a career, simply because there is no career for a college graduate in Williamsburg.  All this is not to say that Williamsburg is not a pleasant place to live, indeed it is anything if not pleasant, rather, Williamsburg is a pit stop, not a destination.  In my opinion, Williamsburg is a great place to vacation, to get away from the noise of everyday life, but it is this characteristic that makes Williamsburg a sleepy town compared to the cities North and South of it.

Oxrieder doesn’t help matters throughout the rest of her article in trying to persuade the reader that Williamsburg is not a sleepy town.  She notes that the Civic League formed in order to “…beautify the ‘village’ in time for the celebration of Jamestown’s three hundredth anniversary” (Oxrieder 163).  However, she then points out that the celebration was moved to Norfolk “to accommodate the anticipated crowds” (Oxrieder 163).  I wonder if there was not some other device at play here, perhaps Williamsburg was not thought of as the place for a big celebration, small as it was at the time.  Further on, and perhaps most incriminating, is the mention of “…various places to rest and socialize” (Oxrieder 165).  If this doesn’t say “sleepy town,” I don’t know what does.

I want to be very clear: I don’t find anything wrong in the idea of Williamsburg being a sleepy town with a slower pace.  If anyone derives a negative connotation of “sleepy and lazy,” it’s Oxrieder herself.  Throughout her article she tries to persuade the reader that Williamsburg is exciting and full of activity.  But instead, she provides evidence to the contrary which leads me to believe that she desperately wants Williamsburg to be something it’s not.  And what’s wrong with a town being “sleepy?”  Williamsburg may have been one of the first locations of colonization, but that doesn’t make it a hub of activity.

“Town and Gown” and the Greeks

Spears’ article, “Perseverance, Preservation, and Prosperity” paints a very optimistic picture of the lives of Greek immigrants in Williamsburg.  It seems to me that nearly every single person profiled in the article came to the United States with only a single dollar in their pocket and the clothes on their back, and have since become millionaires.  The article puts across a very strong message that the American Dream is not dead yet, despite what the cynics may say, and if anyone needs any proof they need only look at the thriving Greek community here in Williamsburg.  But this is not what confused me most about the article.  After all, who I am to second-guess the American dream as a solidly middle-class second generation Mexican-American?  No, the question that kept nagging at me the entire time I was reading the article was the question of what happened to all those amazing restaurants that the Greek immigrants established that catered specifically to college students with their good, cheap food?  The only kinds of restaurants in Colonial Williamsburg today are swanky, 30 dollar per plate restaurants.  The article, on the other hand, depicted a college student’s utopia in CW, a place of good food and basement bars, which seems to have become all but extinct.  If nothing else, the article made me feel nostalgic for a time that I have never lived in.

Tate’s “Town and Gown” article was an interesting read, not only for a history of the college, but also for a history of Williamsburg itself.  The article stresses the interplay between the sociopolitical climate of each era that the College has existed in, and how that has affected the College, for better or for worse.  The focus on the past presidents of the College provided history that I had never heard before, and one that was of huge impact to the College and the community.  The survivability of William and Mary is also pretty astounding, as is its evolution as an educational institution.

Reading Summary/Reflections

As I read the two pieces on the Williamsburg African American community by Linda Rowe and Rex Ellis, I was struck primarily by two things.  The first was the fact that in the late 19th century, blacks outnumbered whites in Williamsburg and also seemed to have served in various government positions and other respected community roles (Rowe 121).  The other was the overarching reality that there continues to be, although not legally mandated, considerable racial segregation in Williamsburg.

Rowe and Ellis both contribute much of the success and development of Williamsburg’s black community to the church, which “took an important role in providing education for black youths” before the public school system was created (Rowe 122).  The authors also credit the black church for providing community spaces for socializing, learning, and sharing financial and other tips with one another.

According to Rowe, a “small but strong group of black professionals—particularly ministers and teachers” was in existence after the Civil War.  This group continued to grow, and some blacks became business owners, shopkeepers, and nurses.  The majority of African Americans in the Williamsburg area continued to perform domestic work and other forms of day labor for their white neighbors (Rowe 126).  Despite the success of some blacks, as a group they still faced regular discrimination. The creation of Rockefellar’s Colonial Williamsburg Project exemplified this when blacks received unfair payments for their properties in their forced relocation (Rowe 127).

An additional fact to note from Ellis’ article is the role of a “black aristocracy” in Williamsburg (234).  A number of well-known black families who were landowners and professionals made a great mark on the Williamsburg community, and continue to do so today.  A number of streets in town have been named after these particular families.  Sometimes, especially in a relatively segregated place like Williamsburg, it is easy for us to dichotomize groups and ignore the diversity of ages and socioeconomics that are inevitably a part of our lives.  Ellis closes by noting that while progress has been made, the black community in Williamsburg continues to struggle for equal essentials like education and representation.  I’m sure we will witness some of these continued discrepancies throughout our research on the WJCC public school system.

Comments on Taylor & Brown/Desamper Articles

The articles which I read, Thomas H. Taylor, Jr.’s “The Restoration of Williamsburg” and “A Household Name: Colonial Williamsburg in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century” were much alike in their subject matter.  Both covered the establishment and growth of Colonial Williamsburg as an organization and landmark, with each focusing on a slightly different time period.  The Taylor piece focuses on the period spanning from the late 1920’s until the early 40’s, detailing the process through which John D. Rockefeller, Jr. went about acquiring and restoring much of Williamsburg to an approximation of its colonial appearance.  The article by Brown & Desamper, as its title suggests, illustrates the further developments which took place in Colonial Williamsburg in the decades following World War II, including its emergence as a popular visiting spot for foreign dignitaries and its adoption of holiday traditions.

Both articles were especially poignant to me.  Freshman year, I took a course in Museum Studies, and for one project I set about interviewing a number of researchers and interpreters to learn about Colonial Williamsburg’s museum practices and how these practices have changed over time.  These articles help to bolster the reports I received from my interviewees, as well as filling in some gaps, informing me about periods in Colonial Williamsburg’s “remarkable history of remaking history” which I had not known previously.  For instance, the Taylor article provides some information about the actions taken by Rockefeller even before Colonial Williamsburg’s inception.

The Brown / Desamper article was useful in this regard as well, in that it helped to expand on aspects of Colonial Williamsburg’s history which I had only touched upon in previous research.   For instance, I have visited the Williamsburg train station a handful of times in the past three years.  The station is decorated on the inside with pictures of visits to the town made by Presidents F.D.R., Truman, and Eisenhower.  I had been surprised that all these notable visits had occurred in such apparently rapid succession.  However, the Brown/Desamper article helps to contextualize this rush of activity as the result of Colonial Williamsburg’s rise to national prominence in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s as a site of historical importance.

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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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