Tuesday, December 6, 2022

From 1961 to 2020: How racial injustice has continued to shape Williamsburg

Students from Bruton Heights High School remember what life was like during the Civil Rights movement.(WYDaily/Bruton Heights/James City Training School Alumni Facebook)
Students from Bruton Heights High School remember what life was like during the Civil Rights movement.(WYDaily/Bruton Heights/James City Training School Alumni Facebook)

Linda Howard remembers graduating from an all black high school in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

She remembers fighting for jobs, fighting for respect and struggling to be heard.

Now, 60 years later, Howard sees black Americans still fighting for those same things.

“You know why?” She said. “Because before me, my parents pushed as far as they could. My generation pushed as far as we could. Each group gets their hands on it and makes it better.”

Howard graduated from Bruton Heights High School in 1966, which is when she said sit-down protests first started in Williamsburg. She said there wasn’t much integration at the time and black people knew what parts of town they could go in.

But she and her classmates saw the difference in what school materials and opportunities they were given and that taught them how to compete for jobs, homes and respect after graduating.

“You might’ve been taught better, but we came out ready to compete,” she said. “But the door had to be opened.”

That’s a sentiment Howard said she still sees in today’s black youth. A lot of black students are excelling in school but when they go into the job market, they’re having to fight centuries of racial barriers still in place today. 

Howard said she can see a mirroring from the Civil Rights movement decades before with the new Black Lives Matter movement.

“You think blacks are out to fight, and yes we’re out to push,” she said. “Because they’re tired of everyone waiting around for something to change. My momma said I want you to do better than I did, and that’s what I said to my daughter.”

An important difference Howard said she’s noticed is these protests don’t just involve black people—they’re people of all different racial and cultural backgrounds. 

And that’s what she hopes will make a change.

“I want my grandchild to apply for a job and I don’t want [employers] to even be looking at the color of her skin,” she said. “I won’t want her to lose the opportunity for a job just because her hair is different…We’re all like fruit, all different humans and colors and size, and that’s how God made us.”

As a Williamsburg native, Edith Heard sees the current Black Lives Matter movement reflected in her memories of the Civil Rights movement. (WYDaily/Courtesy Edith Heard)
As a Williamsburg native, Edith Heard sees the current Black Lives Matter movement reflected in her memories of the Civil Rights movement. (WYDaily/Courtesy Edith Heard)

Edith Heard, also a graduate of Bruton Heights High School in 1961, said she can remember fellow students organizing sit-in protests at F.W. Woolworth’s and the Williamsburg Theater. Many of those protests were peaceful and led to local businesses accepting black customers.

Except until the mid-1960s when a black student was beaten by two white students wearing brass knuckles outside of James Blair High School, she said. Crowds gathered angrily outside the school following the incident and local officials were afraid of a riot after hearing of ones on the news.

Local police brought German shepherds and parents brought their anger.

Colonial Williamsburg officials helped order the dogs away and organize discussions among parents that lasted months.

Heard said for the most part, Williamsburg was a fairly decent area for black people to live.

Growing up, she lived in an area downtown known as “white city,” which was where Colonial Williamsburg housed its black residents. Colonial Williamsburg was an important aspect of making race relations seem genial because they helped provide jobs and homes for black people in the area, and people from all races worked together.

Edith Heard graduated from Bruton Heights High School in 1961 and remembers what life in Williamsburg was like during the Civil Rights movement. (WYDaily/Courtesy Edith Heard)

“When you’re economically stable, things like [race] don’t really bother you,” she said. “We had our own barbershop, restaurants, dance hall and if we wanted to bring white friends, they were accepted.”

Today she said she feels like there is an even greater racial divide because black people in the area are economically disadvantaged. When Heard was growing up, there were more opportunities for black people to find housing and work.

Now Williamsburg has become a place where the black community can’t thrive.

Heard said she hears of the protests and she isn’t surprised because black people have been living in fear across the country and now it’s happening in Williamsburg.

“It’s long overdue,” she said. “There’s a fear that whites would kill you and make nothing of it and we have to make a change. So our youth are out there making a change and putting their lives on the line.”

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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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