From the earliest colonial days, when slavery was commonplace, through the tumultuous Civil War years and the ensuing century of segregation, African-American history in Williamsburg has been defined by resilience, faith, community, and transcending hardship.
Throughout the colonial era and later during the fight for freedom from British rule in the late 1700s, Black families were the bedrock of working daily life in Williamsburg, most enslaved and living amongst wealthy and influential white households. They were laborers, carriage drivers, and skilled in various trades while raising families and staying true to their faith – the Williamsburg First Baptist Church, still active today, is one of the country’s oldest African-American churches. Inspired by the growing Revolutionary War zeal, up to 5,000 African-American soldiers served in the Continental Army, fighting against the British in pivotal battles near Williamsburg like the Battle of Yorktown.
Although liberty and freedom from oppression were the guiding inspiration for the Revolutionary War, it’s a tragic irony that slavery remained the norm in Williamsburg until the outbreak of the Civil War. Case in point: on the eve of the Civil War, in 1860, Williamsburg had just under 2,000 residents – 864 were African-American, making up 45% of the total population, with 86% of them (743) still enslaved. The Civil War enveloped the area around Williamsburg and the Confederate capital, Richmond, especially during the bloody months of the Virginia peninsula campaign, which brought heavy fighting and casualties to Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Civil War battlefields in the surrounding areas. Virginia sided with the Confederacy, but an African-American brigade for the Union side paved the way during the Civil War Battle of New Market Heights in 1864, leading to the Union takeover of Richmond and the Confederate defeat soon after that.
In the decades that followed the Civil War, African-American residents in Williamsburg still had to fight against the lingering effects of institutional inequality – but the Black community proved resilient, as always. Housing and schooling remained segregated, but Black-owned businesses thrived, including cafes, pool halls, barbershops, and restaurants. In the 1890’s, the wealthiest man in town was an African American, owner of “Sam Harris’s Cheap Store”. Mr. Harris’s motto was “Better than the Best, Cheaper than all the rest!”.
Education proved to be a critical turning point, as had been the case earlier during the colonial era when the Williamsburg Bray School taught literacy and primary curriculum to some 400 free and enslaved African-American students between 1760 and 1774. Almost a century passed between the closing of the Bray School and the opening of the first all-black school a few years after the Civil War ended, opening the door again for African-American families to embark on formal education.
The tide changed again for African-Americans in Williamsburg during the “Restoration” period of the 1920s and 30s when W.A.R. Goodwin and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. combined forces to rebuild the entire city and restore its colonial look and character. Rockefeller believed that equality starts with education, so he donated to the founding of the Bruton Heights School. This all-black school finally matched Williamsburg’s white schools, which had historically received better funding, support, and teaching. Bruton also became a vibrant hub of the African-American community, busing in students from surrounding towns, hosting movie nights on the weekends, and serving as a gathering place for Black families. With the formation of the Colonial Williamsburg historic area, African-Americans were employed in hotels, laundries, restaurants, and as laborers and builders while renovating over 150 historic buildings.
African-American history is celebrated at Colonial Williamsburg – within walking distance of our historic bed and breakfast – with daily programs dedicated to the lasting influence of Black culture and community in our city. Start your day by exploring the historic area on a carriage ride – it’s an authentic and entertaining way to tour the central colonial-era architecture while being a tangible connection to Black history, as African-American men historically drove carriages. One of the main carriages in use today, the Benjamin Lewis Sproggins, Sr. Sociable Carriage, pays tribute to an African-American carriage driver who guided groups for 19 years and left an indelible mark on the community with his skills as a horseman and his knowledge of Williamsburg’s many historical footnotes.
Freedom’s Paradox, a fascinating one-hour guided tour included with Colonial Williamsburg admission, is a deep dive into the struggles and triumphs of enslaved African-American residents during the pre-Revolutionary War period. Part of the tour consists of the house of Peyton Randolph, preserved in its Colonial era fashion and where the influential leader lived side by side with dozens of his enslaved servants. Although somewhat lost in the annals of history and out-shadowed by his good friend George Washington, Randolph was the first President of the Continental Congress, playing a crucial role in building initial support for the fight for independence from the British. His merits notwithstanding, the ultimate paradox is laid bare – the Declaration of Independence claimed all men to be created equal, but African-Americans were still second-class citizens – their true freedom yet to arrive.
One of the most interactive ways to learn about Williamsburg’s African-American history is through the “Visit with Gowan Pamphlet,” which takes place on the Governor’s Palace stage. Gowan was an enslaved tavern worker (at the King’s Arms Tavern, a must-visit for a pint and a plate of delicious tavern food) compelled by his faith to preach to others in the Black community, first in secrecy and then as minister of the First Baptist Church. As the first Black preacher of any denomination in the country and going astray of the Church of England doctrine, his path is one of commendable bravery and steadfast belief.
Stay with us in the heart of Williamsburg and explore the inspiring, deeply rooted, and still-evolving tapestry of African-American history.