Monday, January 17, 2022

Decades of Civic Involvement Define Bobby Braxton’s Legacy in Williamsburg

Bobby Braxton rings the bell at First Baptist Church as part of the Let Freedom Ring initiative. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Bobby Braxton rings the bell at First Baptist Church as part of the Let Freedom Ring initiative. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

On any given morning, Bobby Braxton can be found sitting at the table nearest the door at Aromas, and most mornings at least a handful of locals stop by to chat with him as they pop into the café for their morning coffee or tea.

Some of his café visitors know him from his time on the Williamsburg City Council; others met him through his involvement in half a dozen local civic organizations.

A few have even kept in touch with him since his childhood, when he lived on Braxton Court – named for his family – and attended Bruton Heights, the segregation-era Williamsburg’s school for African Americans.

Braxton recently received William & Mary’s 2016 Prentis Award for his strong civic involvement, and he attributes his passion for the City of Williamsburg to the diverse group of friends and acquaintances he has made here.

Today, Braxton is one of Williamsburg’s biggest advocates, but that was not always the case. Despite his family having deep roots in the area, he opted to move away and spent most of his professional life in Maryland, where he worked as an engineer for Westinghouse Electric Corporation.

Braxton was drawn back to Williamsburg in 2004, when he received a notice in the mail from the Williamsburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority about the Braxton Court property he had purchased from his grandfather several years before.

The Housing Authority was interested in rehabilitating Braxton Court, and Braxton decided to travel down from Maryland to attend the first meeting about the project.

Braxton was inspired to become more involved at that first meeting, and he continued traveling to Williamsburg for each City Council meeting over the next three years to advocate for the Braxton Court renovations and learn more about the community in general.

Pleased with the change he was able to affect as a citizen and increasingly impressed by the community Williamsburg had grown into in his absence, Braxton told his wife he was determined to move back to his hometown upon their retirement and began to make plans for a City Council run.

“I told my wife we’re going to retire to Williamsburg – one of the few things I ever told her, rather than asked or discussed – and she looked at me and said ‘Why should I move to Williamsburg? There’s nothing to do there,’” Braxton said. “I told her that’s just not true, there is so much to do here.”

Braxton was elected to the Williamsburg City Council in 2006 and served one term, during which time he worked closely with his fellow city council members and leaders in the community to address the needs and interests of the city.

“Bobby played a critical role in the Braxton Court restoration project and was an interface between the city and the neighborhood through his involvement,” said Mayor Clyde Haulman, who served on the council with Braxton. “I think his way of approaching problems and always having the best interest of the community at the forefront made him a great councilor.”

Braxton also became interested in learning more about William & Mary, an institution about which he knew relatively little because of segregation while he was growing up in Williamsburg, during his time on council.

“William & Mary is special, it really is,” Braxton said. “I learned a lot about the college when I was on council and I’ve been so impressed with its increasing diversity.”

Braxton has led the charge on that count, serving on the board of the William & Mary Lemon Project, which seeks to explore the college’s relationship with slavery and the African American community.

In addition to his work on the Lemon Project, Braxton has also explored African American history in Williamsburg through his role as chairman of the Board of Trustees of First Baptist Church, which is one of the oldest African American churches in the country.

Braxton was among the church leaders who spearheaded the “Let Freedom Ring” campaign that launched in partnership with Colonial Williamsburg last February.

Let Freedom Ring, which garnered international attention and brought people from around the country to the church during Black History Month to ring the church’s bell as a symbolic gesture in support of freedom and equality, was a triumph for Braxton on several levels.

As the project lead, Braxton helped coordinate the restoration of the church bell with Colonial Williamsburg and oversaw the festivities surrounding the return of the bell to its steeple.

The project also resonated emotionally with Braxton, who is one of a small group of current church members who belonged to First Baptist when the bell last rung out in the 1950s – before it fell silent after the church’s move to its current location on Scotland Street.

“We have very fond memories of the bell ringing in the old church,” Braxton said. “I’m very proud of how things have come together and I cannot say enough about the church’s volunteerism.”

The result of the project has been a closer relationship with Colonial Williamsburg, increased attendance at the church and an emotional renewal for the congregation – exactly what Braxton was hoping for when he first proposed restoring the bell.

William & Mary singled out Braxton’s involvement with Let Freedom Ring and the Lemon Project as two of his biggest recent contributions to the community in its press release announcing he would be the 2016 Prentis Award recipient, but Braxton has also continued his steady involvement with several other community-service oriented organizations.

Braxton is a member of Williamsburg Kiwanis, the Williamsburg Arts Commission, the Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance and the Colonial Heritage Community Foundation. He also serves on the boards for Williamsburg Rotary, the Community Action Agency and Williamsburg Contemporary Art Center and as the president of First Night’s Board of Directors.

“If somebody wants my help, I’ll give it,” Braxton said. “What do all these groups share? They all benefit the community, yes, but also they all need help. Each group has its own needs.”

Braxton enjoys being involved with such a diverse range of organizations because it exposes him to the diverse needs and interests of the community – the same reason he enjoys sitting at Aromas and interacting with the variety of people who walk through the doors.

“You see everything here from soup to nuts. Students doing some studying, older folks enjoying a coffee,” Braxton said. “It’s all evolution, that we have such a mix of people here. And you know what the thing is? They are all nice people. That’s what makes Williamsburg the place it is.”

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