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

5591-500hThe article that follows is the second 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.

Edith “Cookie” Heard spent her childhood in mid-20th century Williamsburg, along a street that no longer exists, but one that she resurrects in intricate detail in our interview. East Scotland Street, “now a driveway,” was the site of houses built by Colonial Williamsburg for its employees, including Cookie’s mother and her father who worked three jobs. Nicknamed “White City” for the color of the houses, the neighborhood was in fact entirely African-American, home to cooks, chauffeurs, brick masons, and other blue-collar workers. The nickname was the least of the ironies that characterized the relationship between Colonial Williamsburg and the African-American population.

Cookie recalls an indisputably happy childhood. She used to play with a neighbor’s bulldog, buy cookies with spare change, and bask in her status as the only girl in the neighborhood. Her young age and the insular community shielded her from the reality of the South’s racial segregation. When segregation restricted African-American chauffeurs to residing at a local black-owned hostel (rather than at the Williamsburg Inn), the recurring sight of a flock of black Cadillacs on the parking lot led the young Cookie to believe that a funeral was always transpiring inside. The bitterness of segregation was sweetened by Colonial Williamsburg’s presence. Cookie reflects that she did not perceive institutional racism as a child partly because “Williamsburg blacks were economically stable. And when economics work for you, you really don’t care about the outside community, because you’re happy within that community. … Because you could leave out of Williamsburg and go to Toano, where they have the sharecropping going on, and find a total different feeling and atmosphere.”

The differences in “feeling and atmosphere” between Williamsburg and other parts of Tidewater Virginia and the wider the American South appear even starker in Cookie’s account of a visit to Alabama much later in her life. In 1967, a now-married Cookie had accompanied her family on a trip to her husband’s hometown of Fair Hope, Alabama, only several years after the state’s governor George Wallace “had stood in the college doors” to prevent African-American students from entering the newly desegregated institution. What Cookie found was “a cornfield in front of us, behind us, and on both sides.” Her husband’s relatives lived in “what a Williamsburg person like [Cookie] would call a shanty … they didn’t have running water, nor did they have a bathroom … they were very, very poor.” Though Williamsburg, particularly in the communities within the aura of Colonial Williamsburg, was relatively safe for Cookie and other African-American residents, she was keenly aware of the violence that often accompanied segregation. Cookie’s discomfort over the economic conditions she saw in Alabama turned into terror late one night. Mistaking the voices she heard on a radio that had suddenly come on for the sound of Ku Klux Klan members gathering outside, “I said, ‘They’re coming to get me and they’re gonna kill me here in Alabama’ … I probably broke out in a sweat and everything; I was scared to death.”

Cookie’s experiences reveal that African-American Williamsburg residents grappled with the realities of Jim Crow in their communities and with the quandary between demanding full equality and staying silent, lest the first option jeopardized their relative economic security that so many African Americans throughout the South were lacking. Thus when a teenaged Cookie and her classmates attempted to protest at a segregated Woolworth’s store in 1961, their African-American principal dissuaded them, asserting that they were not representing their still-segregated school. Colonial Williamsburg eventually “told [Woolworth’s] they had to either integrate or shut down,” and made integration in Williamsburg relatively “easy and simple,” due to economic interests and a long-established practice of hiring African-Americans. But the crossroads between striving for a better life and full equality and accepting the status quo would appear again and again for Cookie, often prompting her to be a standard bearer for her community.

In the next installment in the series, Arish will explore Cookie’s career as an organizer for the Colonial Williamsburg workers’ union, and the professional and personal tolls it took on her. 

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