Final Installment of Occasional Series on Work, Race, and Union Organizing in Williamsburg, VA

5591-500hThe article that follows is the final installment in an occasional series of articles based on research conducted by SLSA contributing writer, Arish Ali, on the history of modern African American protest in Williamsburg, Virginia. Arish immigrated from Bangladesh to the United States as a child, and has resided in Virginia ever since. He recently graduated from the College of William and Mary, where he cultivated his interests in historical research, filmmaking, and reflecting on social conditions.

African American workers have long found lucrative opportunities in Williamsburg, but positions of political and executive power have been hard-fought and often ephemeral prizes. While Cookie was only the second African American ever to work at the Colonial Williamsburg Accounting Office in 1966, and Head Chef seemed to be the highest position available to her black contemporaries, Rex Ellis became the first black Vice President of Colonial Williamsburg in 2001. Even then, Cookie warned Ellis to not get “invested” in the company, where “they give you the title but you have no real say-so.” Instances of black leadership in Williamsburg have both displayed the agency of African Americans, and exposed the frailties of race relations in the city.

Community responses to Local 32 of the Food and Beverage Workers Union, the fruit of Cookie’s pioneering work in collective bargaining, evoked a public reaction laced with racial undertones. The local, comprised of Colonial Williamsburg employees, achieved remarkable success in raising collective wages in the early 1990’s. With Minor Christian, an African American, at the helm, the union branch pressured Colonial Williamsburg into increasing wages for all of its 1,100 hotel and restaurant workers in 1993 (Daily Press, July 31, 1993). As one of union’s other key leaders, Cookie ran the local’s essential tasks, including contract negotiation. Despite these individuals’ effectiveness, their race enabled the wider community to pejoratively and falsely characterize their organization as a “black union.” The ethnic makeup of the local, in fact, reflected that of the CW staff; while “you could almost count the white people that worked … in the restaurant department,” only a few African Americans occupied positions at the front desk. Whites occupied all but two of the higher-paying engineer jobs, “because they didn’t give those jobs to black people,” and ultimately comprised over a third of the local. Nevertheless, the “black” label stuck, pitting the union branch against a prejudiced superstructure. The members marched toward the Wren Building for a sit-in demonstration in 1991, for example, to find state troopers and police dogs waiting for them. The fear that “they would … turn the dogs on us” forced the protesters to abort the event, even though they had acquired permission from the city council to demonstrate. In 1997, “[union heads] took Colonial Williamsburg from Minor Christian and gave it to … John Boardman” because, Cookie believes, “they wanted the white boy to have this big, five-star, fine dining hotel … and they took it from the black boy ’cause he had raised so much hell.”

The change of leadership precipitated, in Cookie’s eyes, the decline of the Colonial Williamsburg union. In December 1999, at the time of contract negotiations, John Boardman sought to extract additional holiday pay for workers by threatening to stage disruptive demonstrations in front of several Colonial Williamsburg hotels at 6:00 in the morning on New Year’s Day. Cookie, who had developed a productive working relationship with CW’s contract negotiators over the years, opposed this plan of “walking the streets, yelling … disturbing the guests, and saying ugly things through this microphone.” She expressed her disagreement to Boardman, an action that led to her ouster from the union. It is a testament to Cookie’s abilities, however, that the union has struggled to gain traction without her support. When union representatives tried to organize the housekeepers of Colonial Williamsburg, the latter asked them whether “they know Edith (Cookie) Heard,” and refused to proceed without her.

While Cookie and Minor Christian could not prevent their cause from being viewed through racial lenses, other African American community leaders have sought to directly impact black identity. Colonial Williamsburg’s “African American interpretation and presentations” department, led by director Christy Coleman, recreated a slave auction in 1994 to accurately portray the horrors of slavery. Although Coleman and twelve other department members were African American, their presentation of black history drew anger instead of praise from many African Americans (New York Times, October 8, 1994). Cookie was among “2,000 or better black people” expressing outrage at the mock auction: “I was ready to fight; everybody in Williamsburg was ready to fight … Sell slaves? They lost their minds!” This rupture, and the recent past that included hostility to black activism from the wider society, hint at the uncomfortable spaces that African Americans must sometimes occupy, battling both modern injustices and the specter of an unspeakably painful past.

Between all of Cookie’s endeavors, she never quite got around to a teaching career as she had once planned. But from lecturing at the College of William and Mary’s Lemon Project conferences to mentoring the local Black Lives Matter branch, she has disseminated knowledge throughout a town that has continuously needed and benefited from her attention and activism. My conversations with Cookie allowed me a glimpse of not only a person’s life, but also of the evolution of modern-day Williamsburg.

The full transcript of Arish Ali’s interview with Ms. Heard is available here.