Williamsburg is steeped in history, but thanks to a project from one local organization a different kind of history is being recognized.
“We are reaching folks with our message of unity and sharing our history,” said Jacqueline Bridgeforth-Williams, president of The Village Initiative. “The significance of it will impact all children because this is the American story.”
The Village Initiative, a local nonprofit that promotes unity and inclusion in Willilamsburg-James City County Public Schools, has compiled a collection of oral histories that tell the story of when schools were first integrated 50 years ago.
This project is part of The Village’s yearlong work to mark the celebration of 50 years since integration in WJCC.
Members of The Village met with locals, both young and old, at the Union Baptist Church last Saturday to share their memories of the education system then and now. Bridgeforth-Williams said it’s important to have this spectrum of experiences in order to best understand how history has impacted people in the present.
“It’s important to highlight the experience of African American education,” Bridgeforth-Williams said. “We still have folks living who can tell us about integration and young people to see how different it is. It’s important to better understand one another because some of the stories, some of these voices, have been silenced.”
The organization is collecting oral stories over the next few months from former students and teachers who attended segregated schools and those in integrated schools.
Once all of the stories are collected, they will be transcribed and available to the public through William & Mary. Bridgeforth-Williams said it’s important people have access to this resource so they can understand the history of their community in order to best guide it in the future.
One of the ways of doing that is collecting the stories of recent graduates, who can share their experiences. For example, one student shared she had been altering their appearance during school in order to protect themselves from name-calling and harassment.
“For some of these people, they’ve had experiences that seemed like they were the norm,” Bridgeforth-Williams said. “But they’re not, it’s probably things we should’ve gotten rid of but can be aware of now.”
In the older generation, Bridgeforth-Williams said she felt a sense of community and bond as they gathered together to share their stories at the church. This collection is something that will last generations, Bridgeforth-Williams said, and it will help to honor these torchbearers.
The organization chose to do oral storytelling as opposed to another form because they felt it represented African American traditions the most.
“Oral history is the first space there was for [African Americans] to share their stories,” she said. “As part of our tradition, we are storytellers. I remember listening to my grandmother telling us stories and it would just take you to that place and time like nothing else.”
Bridgeforth-Williams said she expects the organization to continue collecting stories even past the topic of integration in order to provide a resource where people can learn how to better understand themselves and the community.
For now, the oral histories about integration will culminate in a public forum in September called “Integration Then and Now: Voices from the Community.” This event will give the voices and histories to be elevated through a community conversation.
Bridgeforth-Williams said she is proud to be apart of something that adds to the character of the community.
“It will be a great tool for us moving forward,” she said. “To learn about our community history will bring it to life so it will be here for future generations to share.”
To learn more, visit The Village Initiative online.