Colonial Williamsburg topped off its Black History Month programming on Saturday with a community-wide celebration to honor one of its early Black Coachmen, Benjamin Spraggins Sr.
Spraggins made an indelible mark on Colonial Williamsburg for nearly twenty years, serving as a coachman and guide from 1934 to 1953 amidst the height of the Jim Crow era. Said to be the most photographed man in Williamsburg, Spraggins was among a group of Black coachmen that facilitated rides for countless guests and several dignitaries – including Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Sir Winston Churchill.
While the stories and histories of Black Americans received little attention during the time of segregation, Spraggins and the other early coachmen ultimately paved the way for the launch of an African American interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg in 1979.
Cliff Fleet, President and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said the carriage's dedication is intended not only to honor the legacy of Spraggins but also to draw attention to the contributions of Black Americans to Colonial Williamsburg and our nation as a whole.
“We have to recognize that as we have told our nation's history for the first 200 and some-odd years, we have not told the full and complete story. We have not told the stories of African Americans, Native Americans, women and others who contributed to our country," Fleet said during the ceremony. "We must correct that."
Fleet also promised that the Foundation is working hard to bring “a more balanced, nuanced picture so that everyone can see their contributions to our country.”
Remarks were also given by retired Master Silversmith James Curtis. Curtis – who began working at Colonial Williamsburg in 1961 – created exquisite pieces of silver for guests and public figures alike during his 41-year career with the Foundation.
“I don't consider myself a special person, but I did do some special things,” Curtis said. “I made silver for the Dalai Lama, Queen of England and for every president from President Kennedy to President Carter. I'm probably the only African American or Black silversmith that has a piece of silver in Buckingham Palace.”
While Colonial Williamsburg didn't formally begin narrating African American history until 1979, people of color played an integral role in making the living history museum a success since its earliest days.
"The individual stories of Black people of history were told in a very direct way beginning in 1979 with a group of interpreters from Hampton Institute, which became Hampton University," said Rodney Pressley, a Colonial Williamsburg interpreter who hosted the ceremony. "But long before that date, Black interpreters were already here telling our story."
Pressley’s assertions echoed those made by Dr. Ywone Edwards-Ingram, a former staff archaeologist at Colonial Williamsburg and current Assistant Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. In a scholarly article published in The Public Historian, Edwards-Ingram argued that Colonial Williamsburg "brought significant changes to the level of African Americans' involvement, the scale of their visual presence, and the reach of visual representations about them in heritage tourism and education.”
She further emphasized that the museum was a major employer of Black members of the community, who worked "in both skilled and unskilled areas in landscaping, construction and maintenance, culinary and hospitality, and at exhibition buildings, as well as in archaeological work."
During the Jim Crow era, almost all of the Foundation's coachmen were Black. They had key roles in the day-to-day operations of Colonial Williamsburg, essentially serving not only as interpreters but also ambassadors responsible for molding visitors’ experiences, Edwards-Ingram said. By the late 1940s, carriage rides had become a key attraction.
Today, the coach driving program remains a much-loved facet of Colonial Williamsburg and comprises a racially diverse group of both men and women.
"The program – and Colonial Williamsburg as a whole – is forever indebted to the work of Spraggins and numerous other Black employees to bring visibility to the African American experience in the early years of the Foundation and beyond," the Foundation said in a news release.
The Benjamin Spraggins Sociable Carriage was unveiled to the public for the first time during Saturday’s ceremony. It features an open, four-wheeled design and is embellished with a “BLS” monogram based on Spraggins’ full name, Benjamin Lewis Spraggins.
February has proven to be very eventful for Colonial Williamsburg. Earlier this month, a major grant was awarded to support the Williamsburg Bray School Project – a joint initiative of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and William & Mary designed to restore, preserve and relocate the Bray School.
The $5 million grant was provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and will be used to bring the project’s goals to fruition, according to a statement released by the Foundation. It was awarded through the Mellon Foundation's Monuments Project, a $250 million initiative developed in 2020 to rebuild commemorative spaces.
The archaeological discovery of the original Williamsburg Bray School made national headlines last year. Scholars believe the school is the only remaining Colonial-era structure in the United States that was dedicated to educating free and enslaved Black children.
The restored Bray School will ultimately serve as a monument to honor the more than 400 enslaved and free Black children who were taught at the school, which was founded in 1760. The project holds wide-ranging significance in that it is expected to play a pivotal role in telling the stories of Black Americans and untangling details surrounding the nation's complex history of race and education.
The Bray School will become the 89th original 18th-century building to exist on the historic grounds and will be the first building to be restored by the Foundation since the 1960s.
Initial efforts to restore the school's structure will begin this year. The building will be relocated in late 2022 or early 2023, according to the Foundation, and the restoration is expected to be fully finished by the fall of 2024.
“The Williamsburg Bray School Project monumentalizes significant small acts of liberation in our country’s history — those of enslaved and free Black children learning to read and write at a time and in a place where formal schooling was rare and Black potential was suppressed,” said Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander in a statement.
“By restoring the Bray School, we restore our knowledge of the vital stories of the Bray School children, of the families and friends to whom the children brought their learning, and of the capacious power of education.”