A partnership between two William & Mary faculty members and local educational group The Village Initiative morphed from a community-engaged course into a project that is allowing local leaders and W&M students to bring Black history to the Williamsburg community and K-12 students.
The partnership began with a question: How can W&M support The Village Initiative’s ongoing efforts to document and raise awareness about local Black history?
In response, Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies Omiyemi Artisia Green and Associate Professor of Sociology Amy Quark co-taught Walk Together, Children: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Addressing Educational Inequities the past two springs and collaborated using a Reveley Faculty Fellowship. With Associate Professor of Sociology Monika Gosin joining as a co-director, the course grew into the Local Black Histories Project, which is a community research collaboration where W&M students and faculty work alongside community leaders to interpret the histories of the Black community in the greater Williamsburg area for the public and for use in local schools.
This past fall, W&M students and The Village Initiative ramped up research and unveiled the Local Black Histories Project website, which will be added to as work continues.
Resources include a collection of oral histories from community members and curated exhibits. W&M students said they enjoyed the fellowship with community leaders and fellow students, as well as the research aspect of unearthing historical material.
“The fellowship has been such a rich learning experience and an environment where we can work with community leaders and work with other students and build bonds with each other,” said Nigel Seabrook ’22. “I feel like every time we see each other, we get excited and talk about the research and we talk about, oh, what person are you researching that kind of lines up with our person. They’re friends, they grew up in the same school, they ice skated together, they went to movies together, they worked at the college together.
Researching under-represented narratives and individuals prompts thinking about who’s unseen and stories that need to be told because Black people are such a big part of the history of Williamsburg and often aren’t included in the storytelling, Seabrook added.
Breyonna Rock ’24 said that working on materials ranging from interactive story maps to oral histories allowed her to learn while researching and to prepare materials for others to learn in a variety of ways.
“I’m a STEM major and I remember when I first got into this project, I was kind of intimidated because I’ve never done research before and I was kind of nervous about all the primary documents because there’s a lot,” Rock said.
“But it helped me to be more comfortable with it and just learn to love it and to see all of the information and every part of the transcripts. You’re attaching yourself to it in a way and seeing yourself in it, and just making it more personal. And then, of course, it’s that much more rewarding.”
The Black history curriculum covered in K-12 is often brief and cursory from his experience, Seabrook said. Honing in on daily life in the local area brings individuals and communities to life and makes them more relatable in the classroom.
“The purpose and the usefulness of this would be some of these kids might research something and say, ‘Oh, that’s my uncle or that’s my friend’s dad,’” Seabrook said. “Or putting their own connections to the history and making it a deeper experience with the knowledge so it lasts longer with them. … Teachers can really use this tool to say here’s prominent Black people in your own history, people you might know, sources you can connect with to see that you can go on and be great just like these people were.”
Rainah Ward ’22 said her favorite parts have been contributing to and uncovering Black history, while working closely with and learning from community activists.
“During this time, I have recognized that tact and diligence are vital for chronicling the stories of others,” Ward said. “It is so easy to insert your views and philosophies into other’s experiences without fully immersing yourself in their context and displaying empathy and compassion in the process.”
Noah Dalbey ’22 hopes the project becomes an ongoing step toward addressing the role and importance of Black people in the community, he said.
“Obviously this project won’t solve all the systemic racial issues in the area,” Dalbey said. “But this is definitely going to be a huge way to start moving forward.”
In addition to meetings, students have interacted with local community leaders in less formal settings for historic tours and conversations.
“It’s really great to be able to work on a project that has an actual tangible impact that we can see and we can talk to people about,” Dalbey said. “But it’s also just really interesting, in my opinion, to get to meet and work with these people. They’re like local celebrities.”
In the past two years, 34 W&M students have worked on the project through the course and 10 as research fellows. Faculty and students work directly with a community advisory board of 16 leaders in the descendant Black community who guide research priorities, participate in data collection and assist with the analysis and presentation of the data.
“The community is so excited about the project,” said Jacqueline Bridgeforth Williams, founder and director of The Village Initiative. “People have been calling me since the launch to say, ‘This is so important for our community. How can we help, how can my family be a part of it?’ Through this project, they realize their families matter, their history matters.”
The oral history archive is especially important, Bridgeforth Williams added.
“Because the families hold the key — the actual stories,” she said. “Our history has long been about passing oral stories. Now we are able to document these stories and share them with everyone.”
Jennifer L. Williams, Communications Specialist