Saturday, November 26, 2022

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made a stop in Williamsburg on the path to civil rights

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King speaks with members of First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, including Pastor David Collins (right) in June 1962. (Photo courtesy First Baptist Church)
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks with members of First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, including Pastor David Collins (right) in June 1962. (Photo courtesy First Baptist Church)

On a summer day in 1962, spectators filled First Baptist Church on Scotland Street in Williamsburg with a crowd so large it spilled onto the street.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the church on June 26 of that year, addressing the group of both black and white audience members about civil rights and their role in not only continuing the movement in Williamsburg, but trusting others along the way.

An 11-year-old James Patterson sat among the congregation in the church he had attended all his life, unaware of the magnitude of the visit until much later in his life. He remembers thinking, “Why are all these people here?” on the day of King’s visit.

Lafayette Jones, a college student at the time, stood among those who came to the church just to hear King speak.

“He gave us the steps to be successful … and improve our community. He said all the things should be done in a peaceful manner,” said Jones, who grew up in Williamsburg and was previously chairman of the James City County Historical Commission. “It was highly motivational for African Americans and gave us a lot of cause to change the direction of our lives.”

More than 50 years since King’s visit to Williamsburg, First Baptist Church — the oldest Baptist church organized by blacks in the U.S. — continues to celebrate the reverend’s legacy.

In honor of King’s 85th birthday, the church hosted a history program in 2014 that focused more on his sermons than his speeches as a civil rights leader. Dozens of attendees celebrated through prayers, sermons and songs, culminating with the congregation joining hands in a circle to sing “We Shall Overcome.”

Though King’s visit to First Baptist Church came eight years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, much of Williamsburg remained segregated.

Colonial Williamsburg, which the Rockefellers began developing in the 1920s after buying and demolishing a black neighborhood, became one of the first areas in town to begin the integration process. The institution provided job opportunities for black people — as doormen, drivers, cooks and maids — and forced buildings it owned to desegregate.

“I think the presence of Colonial Williamsburg mitigated a lot of [segregation issues] because the Rockefellers tried to set up a bit of a policy where no one was refused service, especially on the basis of race because they were here for everybody,” said Lois Hornsby, who has lived in Williamsburg since 1948.

Racial tensions remained relatively calm in Williamsburg compared with the Deep South during the 1950s and 1960s, but the area was not without its bursts of conflict.

Jones, who grew up in a home where High Street now stands, remembers walking along Richmond Road from its intersection with Ironbound Road when a car headed in the wrong direction came toward him. A passenger in the back seat of the car opened the rear door, striking Jones — who was 13 at the time — and knocking him into the ditch. Uninjured, Jones ran home to report the news to his father, who then called the sheriff’s office. He said the deputies launched an investigation and found the suspects, who were students at the College of William and Mary. Despite the incident, Jones said he felt relatively safe growing up in Williamsburg.

“I don’t recall any major conflicts or confrontations because the blacks stayed to themselves and the whites stayed to themselves,” Jones said.

But that did not stop Jones and his friends from pushing back against segregation. Jones, a high-achieving student who received the merit-based Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Foundation Scholarship upon graduation from the black high school Bruton Heights, at one point attempted to enroll in the white school, James Blair High.

He received pushback from administration, who called Jones in for a sit-down with Superintendent Rawls Byrd. He said Byrd demanded to know which Bruton Heights teacher put him up to applying, threatening to fire all the Bruton Heights teachers if Jones did not name names.

Not wanting to cause trouble for the teachers, Jones withdrew his request.

Earlier in his teenage years, Jones and a few friends protested in front of the movie theater on Duke of Gloucester Street, which divided seating by race. The same day, the theater employees allowed them to sit anywhere in the theater — a policy that remained from then on.

In 1968, the schools in Williamsburg and James City County integrated, creating a new set of problems in race relations.

Edith Heard, a classmate of Jones’ who joined in the movie theater protest, said she had concerns about her children being taught by white teachers.

“I did not want white teachers to be teaching at my kids, instead of teaching them,” said Heard, who elected to send her children to private school instead. “I think a lot of black kids got the short end of the stick when they integrated the schools because they didn’t really understand black kids.”

Elise Emanuel, a former member of the Williamsburg-James City County School Board and former teacher, taught at James Blair in the late 1960s when the schools were integrated.

“When we totally integrated the schools, there was a little contention. … There was no staff development about what to look for or how to go about it,” Emanuel said.

Black and white students had to work together on things they had always done separately: planning the yearbook, writing cheers for the cheerleading squad and planning marching band events.

“It got contentious with these kind[s] of teenage issues,” Emanuel said. “It wasn’t substantial stuff that was causing the difference.”

To help mitigate the issues, parents volunteered to monitor the halls during school to prevent arguments from breaking out.

“They were committed to making sure that this worked, so I give a lot of credit to the parents, both black and white,” Emanuel said.

One of those active parents was Hornsby, whose three boys attended school when the schools began integrating. Her two oldest sons, Bobby and Bruce, both joined a group for students called Up With People, which put on a show at William & Mary about integration.

“That was a real help in the desegregation because it pointed out the generational differences,” said Hornsby, who grew up in New England where issues among people were usually rooted in cultural heritage rather than race.

Hornsby welcomed the teenagers involved in Up With People into her home, but noticed the black teens would get “askance” looks from her white neighbors.

Christine Jordan, a longtime area resident who attends First Baptist Church, said racism existed in this area but remained “undercover” for the most part.

“This town was not screaming because of oppression,” said Jordan, who saw King’s 1962 speech in Williamsburg and attended her church’s celebration of his birthday last week. “… [Williamsburg] was no Utopia.”

The church earned a visit from King through their pastor, David Collins, who was the vice president of the Tidewater chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a prominent civil rights organization that King helped cofound.

Aaron Butler, a speaker at the church’s history program in 2014, brought along a book of King’s sermons called “A Knock at Midnight,” encouraging attendees to reflect on King’s religious messages in addition to his civil rights speeches.

He referred to King’s “Strength to Love” sermon, in which King discusses being in the “midnight of social order” and how faith, hope and love can bring society out of the darkness.

“While there may be darkness in our social order today, our message must continue to be that of hope, of love, of faith, of peace and of power through faith in God,” Butler said.

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
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 alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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