By BEN FINLEY, Associated Press
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Black men who drove horse-drawn carriages through the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia were both everywhere and invisible in Jim Crow times.
Their wooden coaches helped evoke the late 18th century for visitors including Queen Elizabeth, Sir Winston Churchill and the general of the time. Dwight Eisenhower. And yet men were forced to use separate bathrooms and water fountains, among the many other sanctioned indignities of segregation.
“These guys were resilient,” said Paul Undra Jeter, manager of trainer and livestock at the Living History Museum. “I tell my young (black) drivers that they face nothing compared to what they faced back then because (racism) was okay.”
Colonial Williamsburg has begun honoring coachmen by naming a new car after one, in the hope that others will follow. The first is for Benjamin Spraggins, who was sometimes said to be the most photographed man in Williamsburg – though few captions are named after him. A carriage procession and ceremony will also celebrate Spraggins on Saturday.
The tribute is part of the museum’s ongoing reflection on race and its past accounts of the country’s origins and the role of black Americans.
Colonial Williamsburg tells the story of Virginia’s capital in the late 1700s and includes more than 400 restored or reconstructed buildings. The museum was founded in 1926 but did not tell black stories until 1979. More than half of the people who lived in the colonial capital were black and many were enslaved.
The coachmen of the segregation era were exclusively black. And they were part of a much larger black workforce that underpinned museum operations as cooks, maintenance workers and landscapers, said Ywone Edwards-Ingram, a professor in the Department of Targeted Investigation. from Virginia Commonwealth University.
In a 2014 scholarly paper, Edwards-Ingram pushed back 1979 as a watershed year for inclusion because black people had been working there for a long time, sometimes in highly visible roles, even though they weren’t officially performers.
In the 1890s, before the museum was established, black residents served as guides for tourists and later helped rebuild the museum buildings. They also worked in archeology to help uncover physical evidence of the colonial capital. And some dressed in costume, performing tasks such as candle making, Edwards-Ingram said.
She said segregation-era coachmen were essentially interpreters — even ambassadors — for passengers and dignitaries.
They were also highly skilled in breaking horses and “quite the craftsmen our blacksmiths and goldsmiths were,” said Carl Childs, the museum’s executive director of research and education.
But they received little recognition.
“When you look at Colonial Williamsburg’s photography collections, many times their names weren’t even mentioned,” Edwards-Ingram said. “That’s why it’s important to name this car. You make things visible.
Driving coaches from 1937 to 1953, Spraggins provided “his perspective on the city” and “played an active role in the cultural performance of the carriage ride, essentially controlling the experiences of visitors,” Edwards-Ingram writes in his article.
Spraggins died in 1987. A grandson, Darrell Jimmerson, said his grandfather was a humble and hardworking man. And while Jimmerson never heard specific stories, there’s no doubt that Spraggins and other black coachmen faced racism on the job.
Jeter, the museum’s trainer and livestock manager and the first black person to hold the position, said Colonial Williamsburg now employs black, white and female carriage drivers. Black drivers sometimes hear racist remarks from passing visitors — or someone falsely claims black people have never lived there or driven cars.
The carriage drivers fight back, while other guests support them, Jeter said. And people who make such comments “usually shut up and back off a bit cowardly because they’re making a scene.”
“You have more people who disagree than agree with them,” Jeter said.
This story was first published on February 25, 2022. It was updated on February 26, 2022 to correct the date of Benjamin Spraggins’ death. He died in 1987, not 2003 when his son Benjamin Spraggins Jr. died.
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