Coming Home to a Changed City
Daily Press (Newport News, VA)
September 12, 2004 Sunday
SECTION: Local News, Pg. C1
WILLIAMSBURG–It was Vernon Ross’ welcome home lunch.
He anticipated the food almost too pristine to eat and the bright white tablecloths and perfectly polished silverware at the Williamsburg Inn. But he wasn’t sure how he felt about going through the front door.
As a teenager, Ross spent many afternoons in the inn’s dining room. But only by entering through the back door and only to clear the tables and scrub the floors for white customers.
“To sit in a room where I had cleared many, many tables as a busboy, swept the floors, and now I’m sitting there being waited on,” said Ross, who is 72. “It’s — I don’t know — a feeling of accomplishment, or, why so long? A feeling of — I’m in the wrong place, even now.”
Ross is like so many blacks who left segregated Williamsburg years ago for opportunities in northern cities, spurning lives as short-order cooks or butlers for graduate school and an entree into the middle class. Now ailing parents, childhood memories and Virginia’s warmer winters are drawing many of them back.
It’s a different Williamsburg, they say, sometimes better, sometimes worse. Now they can play golf at courses where in the past they could only caddy, and they can buy homes where they were once forbidden to live. But many of the minority-owned businesses are gone, and blacks are more of a minority than ever.
“I think about it all the time. It saddens me. Because Williamsburg now is built up for tourists and you don’t see as many blacks come into these places,” said Jean Stewart, 66, a retired teacher who returned from Trenton, N.J., last year to care for her mother. They live on Braxton Court, one of the few black enclaves in Williamsburg’s city limits.
Stewart, Ross and the others left for better opportunities after they graduated from Bruton Heights, Williamsburg’s school for black children.
Ross would have applied to the College of William and Mary and stayed in his father’s house on Botetourt Street if the school had admitted blacks. Instead, he graduated from Hampton Institute, where dozens of his relatives had preceded him.
When he applied to graduate music programs at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, he received a letter from the state of North Carolina’s department of higher education explaining its laws did not allow blacks and whites to integrate in its colleges.
“I just said, well I don’t have to stay here and spend the rest of my life trying to prove to somebody that I’m a halfway decent individual,” Ross said.
Some blacks went to Philadelphia, others to New York. Ross moved to New Jersey and over the years earned a master’s degree in conducting and an educational specialist degree in school and college administration.
He became the supervisor of music programs for Newark public schools. He and his wife, Joy, bought a six-bedroom house with chestnut beams and oak floors.
Ross always knew he wanted to return to Williamsburg.
“We knew what remnants of racism still exist. There are still signs of it,” he said. “But we could put up with that.”
Black residents are even more of a minority now as large numbers of retirees, many of them white, come to the Williamsburg area. There are not fewer blacks now, but they make up a smaller percentage of the total population.
In 1950, blacks comprised 13 percent of the population in the city of Williamsburg, 46 percent in James City County and 26 percent in York County.
Now, they comprise only 13 percent of all three areas combined.
The returnees straddle black and white worlds. Many of them have chosen not to live in Williamsburg’s traditionally black enclaves, opting for houses in predominantly white neighborhoods because they can now afford them.
In 1999, Ross and his wife built a 2,300-square-foot house now assessed at $280,000 in Piney Creek Estates, a neighborhood where they are one of a handful of black families.
Other returnees made similar choices.
“Now, if you can afford to buy, money talks,” said 74-year-old Oliver Tabb, who moved back after a career in the circulation department at The New York Times, to be closer to relatives and schoolmates. He and his wife bought a house in the Wyndham Plantation retirement community.
When they were growing up, if their families had tried to buy houses in white neighborhoods, Tabb said, “they just wouldn’t sell you a house in that area, or they would have a reason you couldn’t buy.”
Money talks on the golf course, too.
“Now we can play at even the private places, as long as we get an invitation from somebody,” Ross said. “But any of the public courses, it’s just a matter of paying the green fees.”
Driving home the point, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held its annual golf tournament last year at Colonial Williamsburg’s Golden Horseshoe, where Ross and his friends once worked as caddies to save money for college.
“Course, we didn’t play,” he said, remembering those days. “The only thing we could do was go on the side and just hit a ball. I learned the technique, but I never played a round of golf, didn’t play for 35 years.”
The newcomers are eager to see their old friends and help them build a new future of blacks participating in Williamsburg, but they run into the reality that some people treat them as upstarts.
“My brother has cautioned about that repeatedly… Most of the people won’t even know you, and you won’t know them,” said Carl Ross, Vernon’s older brother.
The elder Ross left to become a pediatrician in New Jersey and plans to move here next month.
“In your mind you’re coming home,” he said, “but in their mind you’re a newcomer.”
Carl Ross recalled a disagreement his brother had with church members in Williamsburg.
“The attitude of the people that he ran into were, ‘Who are you and what right have you to suggest things to us to do differently?’ You can’t get up there and show them your certifications. They don’t care about that.”
The returnees buck old social mores, after living in big cities with lots of cultural offerings and living in middle-class neighborhoods where they were one of only a few black families.
Stewart’s brother, Lawrence Gurst, and his wife can feel people looking at them when they attend the holiday performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at a local Methodist church.
“You see one or two blacks” at the concert, said Gurst, a quiet man who taught art and shared a three-story gallery with other artists in Rochester, N.Y. He and his wife moved back in 1999 to be closer to his elderly mother.
Edna Baker sold her house in Detroit and moved back to Williamsburg in 1991. She and her husband also wonder why they are the only blacks in the auditorium at performances of the Williamsburg Players.
“If there are other blacks, it’s because they’re from out of town,” she said. “I’ve heard some say, ‘When we wanted to, we couldn’t participate. So I don’t care to participate.’ ”
“Maybe the other people think, ‘Should I go, or will I be out of place?’ ” she said. “We don’t even think about it. If there’s something we want to do, we go, whether it’s black, white or whatever. If there’s something I want to do, if I can afford it, I go.”
Remnants of the old Williamsburg still exist. Many blacks still live in largely black neighborhoods and socialize with family members and friends from their predominantly black churches.
“There’s no animosity,” Baker said. “It’s just, I go to one church, they go to another. I go to one club meeting, they go to another meeting.”
There are people trying to chip away at the separation.
The organizers of the Williamsburg Reunion, a biennial event for people who lived in the area 40 years ago, acknowledge that blacks have not been part of past galas. This year they are making an effort to include them. They appointed Baker and other blacks to the organizing committee.
“There have been people for years that said, this looks like a white-only event,” said Sharon Scruggs, who serves on the committee. “It’s been a really good way to bridge some old-school Williamsburg people who can be friends. They just never were exposed to the same social circles.”
Several of the returnees plan to attend.
“I have little bitterness,” Vernon Ross said. “I fault the system of segregation, apartheid, whatever you want to call it. Because I, had I wanted to, I should have been allowed to remain in Williamsburg and Virginia as a full-fledged citizen, doing what I did up to the point of my retirement.”