Sunday, July 3, 2022

‘There’s Nothing Like This That’s Been Done Before’: Colonial Williamsburg Honors Legacy of Black Coachmen

CW’s new carriage named after Black coachmen Benjamin Spraggins, Sr. was unveiled to the public Saturday. (WYDaily/Molly Feser)

WILLIAMSBURG — It was a powerful day in Colonial Williamsburg (CW) as hundreds of community members gathered in front of the Courthouse steps to honor the legacy of the Foundation’s early Black American coachmen.

On Saturday, Feb. 26, CW unveiled its newest carriage, The Benjamin Spraggins Sociable Carriage, named after a man who paved the way for other Black American coachmen who came after him, as well as Black American interpreters in CW.

The late Benjamin Spraggins, Sr. worked as a coachman and guide for CW from 1934 to 1953. Referred to by some as “Mr. Hollywood,” he was one of the most photographed men in CW – though his name was barely recorded.

“You see different coachmen in pictures and you see the people that they’re driving and you see their names, but you don’t see the name of the coachmen, so it’s like they’re seen, but unseen,” Director of Coach and Livestock Undra Jeter said.

The coachmen were right at the forefront of CW, finding themselves in the company of celebrities, royalty and politicians, such as Queen Elizabeth, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

These coachmen were a major part of CW, but, up until now, their stories and names have been largely untold.

“For me, this is huge, being an African American,” Jeter said. “As far as Colonial Williamsburg, there’s nothing like this that’s been done before. I feel like this is a stepping stone. CW is inviting the community in, trying to give back to these Black employees that worked here and say ‘We have ignored you for far too long and now its time to recognize you and embrace your name.'”

Stephen Seals, interpreter and historic area program development manager for CW, noted that in the early days of CW, interpreters, who were called hostesses at the time, were primarily white women.

“But when they started having the carriages, which was a big part of CW from the beginning, the people at the front of those carriages getting people from one place to another were all Black,” Seals said.

While at the time, CW may not have expected that some of the world’s most famous and powerful figures would want to be taken around on the carriages when they came to visit, the coachmen would come to be the biggest ambassadors for CW.

“These men have photos with presidents,” Seals said. “And I don’t think that was ever the intention, but it’s what happened. You put someone in a position or you give them opportunities, you have no control over what someone is going to do with those opportunities. And those coachmen used those opportunities to do some very important things and to be these amazing ambassadors.”

Seals, who currently portrays James Armistead Lafayette at CW, said that Spraggins and the other early Black American coachmen laid the groundwork for himself and others.

“They’re the giants whose shoulders I stand on as a Black interpreter,” he said. “So the stuff that I do for the public, so much of it began with those coachmen.”

The idea to have a carriage be named in honor of the Black experience in Williamsburg had been talked about for “a number of years,” Seals said.

A committee that was formed to name a new carriage decided to name it after a Black coachman. However, they felt that it would not be right to name it after a Black American coachman from the colonial era, as they were enslaved.

“The coachmen part of their job was just their job, it wasn’t who they were,” Seals said. “And when you humanize people, it’s really about focusing on who they are as opposed to what their work was.”

An idea came to name it after Black American coachmen from the 1930’s, who were vital to the evolution of CW.

While CW did not begin interpreting African American history until 1979, Dr. Yvonne Edwards-Ingram argued in a 2014 scholarly article that African American coachmen were already interpreting the past as early as the 1930s.

The Benjamin Spraggins Sociable Carriage, an open, four-wheeled carriage, was built in Pennsylvania and is embellished with a monogrammed “BLS” based on Spraggins’ initials, something unique from CW’s other carriages.

The carriage is embellished with a monogram of Spraggins’ initials. (WYDaily/Molly Feser)

“The thing we were talking about in the committee, is we wanted to recognize Mr. Spraggins, but we didn’t want to recognize him in a manner that was counter to his identity,” Seals said. “He’s a black man of African descent, his culture would have reflected that. So we didn’t want to go with a coat of arms. We really wanted something culturally deeper. And saying your name, printing your name is how you’re immortal, it’s how you go on.”

Seals said that Spraggins’ identity will live on through the carriage and he wants people to feel “pride and knowledge” when they are looking at it.

“The carriage design is powerful because it’s immortalizing a piece of Mr. Spraggins,” Seals said. “Every time it passes on the street and you see it, you’re seeing a part of him.”

The public was in awe as the carriage was unveiled, with descendants of Spraggins in attendance.

Darrell Jimmerson, the grandson of Spraggins, described his grandfather as a “strong, soft spoken, humble man, who was a dear friend to many.”

Jimmerson, whose first job was also at CW and has lived in Williamsburg his whole life, said that his grandfather did not look to the past, and was instead always looking forward.

“He did not talk to me about racial problems, and I think that he knew that was something that he could overcome,” Jimmerson said. “He talked to me more about getting my education, because he knew that was the way I could fight back.”

He said that his family wants the foundation to continue recognizing African Americans’ roles in the living museum.

Jimmerson said that when people visiting CW see his grandfather’s carriage riding by, he wants them to have a feeling of “hope.”

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