Friday, October 7, 2022

Paying the price: How Williamsburg’s Black business sector died in the 20th century

The Triangle Business Block was a hub for black businesses in the area in the twentieth century. But after decades of local government efforts, the area was redeveloped and black businesses were displaced. (WYDaily/William & Mary Special Collections)
The Triangle Business Block was a hub for Black businesses in the area in the 20th century. But after decades of local government efforts, the area was redeveloped and black businesses were displaced. (WYDaily/William & Mary Special Collections)

Williamsburg is known for celebrating history, but the stories of a Black business sector in the 20th century are still being preserved by those who remember it.

Growing up, Latasha Holloway remembers her grandmother, QuoVadis Wright, telling her stories of the Triangle Block—a Black-owned business community in downtown Williamsburg. Holloway’s relatives and ancestors owned businesses in the area until the middle of the 20th century when decades of local government action drove the Black business people out of the area. 

But much of the history would’ve been lost if it weren’t for Wright meticulously collecting newspaper clippings and city documents that she donated to William & Mary Libraries before her death in 2017, Holloway said.

“She wanted the history to be preserved,” Holloway said. “She didn’t want someone coming in and sugarcoating it and saying it was all rosy. There has been and will continue to be systemic racism…and before she died she was obsessed to make sure that history was preserved.”

In Wright’s collection of documents, a story is told about Black business owners’ struggle to preserve their financial stability in the area. An undergraduate honors thesis by Zach Meredith at William & Mary uses Wright’s collection to explain how this Black-owned business area was repurposed.

A place for Black business

The Triangle Block stretched from a triangle-shaped area of land near Scotland Street and Richmond Road. The area contained businesses such as barber shops and convenience stores and even a medical center until the 1970s when the Williamsburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority started to implement plans to redevelop the area, which would eventually push many of the Black-owned businesses out, according to records in William & Mary’s special collections. 

The business area was home to the first African American physician, Dr. J. Blaine Blayton, who opened a medical practice on the second floor of a building in the Triangle Block in 1932. Blayton eventually built a larger medical facility in the area in 1952 that became the only hospital to provide medical care for African Americans until 1961.

That space was necessary for Black individuals in the area who were not welcome in many businesses because of segregation. In Wright’s collection, she made note of going into a business on Duke of Gloucester Street where she saw a hat she liked.

“I grabbed the hat and was heading for the nearest mirror when a voice stopped me in my tracks,” she wrote. “I looked around to see steely eyes and a woman who said, ‘do not put my hat on your greasy head.’” 

But even with the history and benefits of the area, many Black residents and business owners continuously found themselves having to fight for their space.

Holloway said her grandmother told stories of that time and the fight Black business owners put up against the city to try and preserve their properties. Part of the issue was that Black business owners continuously asked the city for improvements to the area but were never granted any. The city then used language such as “substandard” or “blighted” to describe the area, which allowed for a certain amount of grants to redevelop the Triangle Block.

“People said ‘we need these businesses, they’re how [the Black community is] functioning,’” Holloway said. “There was so little value of Black survival that they would just tear it down.”

Plans to redevelop the area started in the 1950s when a comprehensive plan designed the Triangle Block as the site of a bus terminal and single-family housing units. The comprehensive plan was updated in 1968 and recommended the area for “Tourist Commercial” land use and considered how the area would serve tourists since it was so close to Colonial Williamsburg.

Zach Meredith's undergraduate thesis shows images of the Triangle Block in its early years from the Special Collections at the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library. (WYDaily/John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library)
Zach Meredith’s undergraduate thesis shows images of the Triangle Block in its early years from the Special Collections at the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library. (WYDaily/John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library)

With the plans also came push back from the Black community that had thrived in the area. 

Uproar ensued after a proposal was made in the 1970s to place a park in the Triangle Business area. The proposal resulted in a Williamsburg City Council meeting with more than 100 residents, Black and white, in attendance. Many Black residents argued the demolition of the area would destroy the last Black-owned business area and would decrease economic opportunities for Black people in Williamsburg.

The WRHA created a new study of the issue following the meeting but moved forward with the acquisition of property on the block, which also involved condemning various properties in the area.

In 1976, Oscar Blayton, son of J. Blayton, published various editorials in local newspapers expressing the redevelopment of the area as a devastating blow to the Black community.

Redevelopment plans for the area continued as other surrounding Black neighborhoods were also repurposed and despite a number of setbacks, the WHRA eventually constructed a 9,000-square-foot building in 1984. None of the businesses displaced by the redevelopment returned to the area, according to Meredith’s research. 

“Black people still managed but it wasn’t the same way they were thriving before,” Holloway said. “It was a struggle to pick up the pieces and forge on in spite of your city claiming eminent domain on anything they could see people of color making improvements on.”

Collecting history

Today the Triangle Business Block is home to a number of restaurants and businesses visited by tourists, locals and college students. But the businesses that came before are still remembered by some.

The Williamsburg Documentary Project, a William & Mary initiative that collects and preserves oral history, also created a timeline of the Triangle Business Block — information from various locals who recall the business block is meticulously detailed back to 1873.

Holloway’s grandmother was witness to that devastation to the Black business community as her family owned various businesses in the area. But Wright worried the history and redevelopment of the area would be lost, which is why she labored collecting documents to record what had happened, Holloway said.

And it is because of her work the history of the Triangle Business Block survives in Special Collections at William & Mary Libraries

Wright recalled in an editorial in the Virginia Gazette in 2016 her love of history and its importance for remembering the history of Black people in the area.

“I always told my kids that it wasn’t always the way it is now, where you could go into any building, sit and eat and shop everywhere,” she wrote. “Somebody before us paid a big price for us, and we owe them.”

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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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