NEW OCCASIONAL SERIES FOCUSES ON WORK, RACE, AND UNION ORGANIZING IN WILLIAMSBURG, VA

5591-500hThe article that follows is the first 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.

Despite living in Williamsburg, Virginia for almost four years, I realized in my final spring of college that I hardly knew anything about this ostensibly sleepy town or its residents beyond the campus perimeters. That semester, I enrolled in the 2015 Williamsburg Documentary Project, a research initiative offered to the students of the College of William and Mary as an academic course. I chose to research the history and nature of modern African American protest in Williamsburg, a city famous for recreating—through Colonial Williamsburg—a past in which African Americans were enslaved. But beyond this living history portrayal, a narrative of African American protest in Williamsburg was largely absent.

Throughout my explorations, I found that modern protests arose not only from racial inequality, but potent economic factors as well. I gathered a great deal of information from attending NAACP meetings, listening to discussions about racism in the College’s annual Lemon Project conference, and observing protests held by the incipient Black Lives Matter movement. It was not an organization, however, that truly gave me a sense of working-class African American life in Williamsburg, but one woman. This woman was Edith Heard, better known to locals as Cookie.

I first heard about Cookie early in my research, when a long-time Williamsburg resident told me about a woman who had led the workers’ union of Colonial Williamsburg in a protest march in the early 1990s. Highly intrigued, I reached out to Cookie. A few days later, even before she had responded to my email, I happened to see a silver-haired woman at the Lemon Project conference with the name-tag “Edith.” I instantly knew that I had found her. Once I introduced myself, Cookie proved to be a warm personality, both gracious and informal. She agreed to a later interview, which became the backbone of my research into the intersections of race, labor, and resistance in Williamsburg.

My interview with Cookie, clocking in at over an hour, painted equally vivid portraits of Cookie and the city that she had lived in nearly all of her life. From Cookie I learned that Williamsburg was unique. Abundant economic opportunities historically existed in the city for African Americans. But according to Cookie, theses economic opportunities often served to quell instigations of protest. This status quo stemmed chiefly from the presence of Colonial Williamsburg—CW to locals—an institution that loomed large in the background of Cookie’s interview. While CW provided jobs and housing for many African Americans, it perpetuated what Cookie characterized as a “plantation mentality” among its workers while also punishing union activity among its employees. Colonial Williamsburg had played a forceful role in integrating local businesses in the 1960s—“it was about economics in Williamsburg”—but sparked controversy in 1994 by reenacting a slave auction.

Edith “Cookie” Heard highlighted many such contradictions and idiosyncrasies about work, race, and life in Williamsburg. Growing up as a child of Colonial Williamsburg employees, Cookie eventually voiced a demand higher wages from the same company, sought higher education later in life, and gave back generously to her community as an educator and activist. Cookie accomplished tremendous feats that her carefree, breezy tone of speaking made seem effortless. In a town famous for its past, Cookie’s testimony of pushing back against the status quo serves as a harbinger of the future.

In the next installment in the series, Arish will elaborate on Cookie Heard’s childhood and youth, her early interactions with Colonial Williamsburg, and the impacts of Jim Crow segregation on Williamsburg’s African American residents .

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