Mass meetings demanding that Williamsburg’s city government spend more? Unionized workers striking? Bruton Parish’s rector and William and Mary’s president quarreling over racial equality? All this and more are to be found in Swem Library’s exhibit, “A ‘Most Thriving and Growing Place’: Williamsburg before the Restoration.” Focusing on the years from the 1880s to the 1920s, the exhibit uses documents, images, and artifacts from Swem’s Special Collections Research Center to examine how a sleepy southern college town became a progressive, expansive city in the Jim Crow South. At the same time, the past kept its hold on Williamsburg, culminating in the late 1920s with the establishment of the Rockefeller-funded Restoration.
The cases in the Nancy Marshall (Rotunda) Gallery begin by providing an introduction to late nineteenth-century Williamsburg, then focusing on particular aspects of life. One section examines the growth of industry and retail businesses in the early twentieth century and tells the story of Samuel Harris, an African American who was the wealthiest merchant in town. A remarkable broadside is an appeal by unionized workers of color for support from the white community. Another section explores municipal developments, such as the establishment of public schools and changes in voting. Voter registration books show women registering to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment, giving them suffrage. One document details the city’s first efforts to regulate that new-fangled invention, the automobile. A section on social and recreational activities includes such items as programs from movie theaters, photographs of May Day dancing and a colonial pageant, and minutes from the local chapter of the King’s Daughters.
The exhibit continues in the adjoining Special Collections Research Center. Most notable is the display of the College’s World War I flag, commemorating both those who died and those who served. One case explores how the area participated in and was affected by World War I. Another case explores the city’s religious life, displaying a variety of items, including a report on the competition between the Methodists and the Baptists over Sunday school attendance. Additional cases use photographs, letters, and programs to examine several other events, including the dedication of Williamsburg’s Confederate monument and the presentation by the Ku Klux Klan to the College of William and Mary of a flag and flagpole. The final case concludes the exhibit with the beginning of the restoration of Williamsburg.
Images from the exhibit preparation and the installed exhibit cases are available from the SCRC's Flickr page.
All material is from the Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library. Curator: Beatriz Hardy, Special Collections Research Center Director; Exhibit Design and Installation: Chandi Singer, Warren E. Burger Archives Specialist; Graphics: Karen McCluney, Swem Graphic Artist.