Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Williamsburg’s African-American history in the 20th century is just starting to reveal new mysteries

There’s isn’t a lot of information on how the Civil Rights Movement played out in the Historic Triangle, but William & Mary professor Jody Allen said that’s what makes the topic all the more interesting.

Allen is a historian with The Lemon Project at the college, which aims to study the history of slavery on campus and around Williamsburg. During her research she has worked with historians and locals who were involved in the civil rights movement during the 20th century.

“Of the people over the years that I’ve interviewed, one of the things that has come up consistently is that civil rights happened differently here because of Colonial Williamsburg,” she said. “At some point as we continue our research looking into these stories about how the Rockefellers kind of controlled the response to integration here.”

Infamous oil baron John D. Rockefeller Jr. was the leading force behind the reconstruction of Williamsburg as a historic area in the 1920s. Throughout the 20th century the family played a large role in overseeing Colonial Williamsburg, according to archived articles from the Washington Post.

In the late 1930s, the family was integral in building the Bruton Heights School in Williamsburg. It was built as a school for African-American students in the city and surrounding counties, according to Colonial Williamsburg’s digital library.

Allen made a point to note the Rockefellers’ influence helped provide a state-of-the-art building during that time, but since the county was responsible for the supplies, students at Bruton Heights still suffered from a separate, but less-than-equal school system.

Often, African-American community members would organize fundraisers to find money for better textbooks, educator pay and other educational needs. The high school eventually became a center of the African-American community and even maintains an alumni network today, Allen said.

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s in the United States, it was John D. Rockefeller III that oversaw his family’s continued interest. During that time, Rockefeller III advocated for equal rights in a number of ways, including publishing an editorial in the New York Times in 1964.

“How America treats its minorities… first of all is a moral question,” he wrote. He continued to say the economic outcomes of the movement should be considered because they impact minority individuals from across the country. Rockefeller III said as a supporter of the movement, he believed it was time to stop the protesting and take stock of the new gains acquired by the movement.

But while the family supported the movement, Allen said there are arguments they also tried to keep it out of local papers. She said she has heard stories about times when employees of Colonial Williamsburg had heard of sit-ins or protests being planned at particular shops and restaurants, and the Rockefellers would then make the location integrated to prevent the protest.

“They didn’t want tourists to be afraid to come here,” she said. “They were about keeping their industry up, and that meant keeping Colonial Williamsburg out of the newspapers.”

Allen admits that’s hard for historians to prove because those conversations often happened over the phone and a lot of the story now relies on oral history.

As historians and scholars delve deeper into African-American history in the 20th century in Williamsburg, though, Allen said there will probably be more and more unexpected narratives, each telling a different side of the story.

“From…what I have observed, it seems like there are separate little worlds here that people cohabit,” she said. “It’s a real mixed bag in terms of how people think about and remember Colonial Williamsburg and what the positives and negatives are.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

Related Articles