Friday, September 11, 2009

The Case of the Missing Church

The weather has taken a turn for the better down here in Virginia. We've gone from the sort of heat that probably would have killed a few dozen colonials back in the day to a more reasonable damp, but not suffocating, warmth. At the height of the heat, Mabel and I would try to keep our walks for the mornings and evenings, and even then criss-crossing back and forth tracking shady bits of sidewalk. Also trying to avoid the horses and sheep. Mabel's never really met a sheep before, and I suspect that meeting one for the first time in the midst of the tourist throng of Colonial Williamsburg would not be a good idea.

I can't deny that it is slightly odd to be teaching in colonial Disneyland. The campus and the theme park are actually surprisingly separate; the part of Colonial Williamsburg nearest the college is "Merchant's Square," where there is a Williams-Sonoma and the like, and although the historic part of William & Mary adjacent to this is actually the oldest and best preserved part of Williamsburg, it's not as swarming with tourists as you might think. But if you venture a few blocks east, you start to run into the aforementioned sheep, as well as the costumed actors who want to tell you about blacksmithing or making wagon wheels or whatever. To their credit, many of them also carry dog biscuits.

The whole scene is irresistible for a historian. Not so much the colonial aspect, as those of us who actually do history professionally are somewhat bemused by Mr. Rockefeller's folly. But it is impossible not to be fascinated by the many layers of history here, and the sometimes surprising negotiations that have gone into creating them. For example: alongside the road I travel to get to school is this big empty green spot.

According to the plaque, this empty lot is the former site of the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, an early African American congregation that formed in the eighteenth century largely because they were unwelcome at the Bruton Parish Church now at the center of the Colonial theme park. There were several iterations of this church, but in 1856 the congregation was able to build a proper brick church that looked like this:

Being a curious sort, I've been trying to figure out what exactly happened to the 1856 church, as both the plaque and information on the official web site are decidedly fuzzy. Sure I could probably ask somebody, but this being a blogging enterprise, I decided to see what I could find just with my handy Google Toolbar. Best as I can tell, in 1956, the congregation sold the church to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for $130,000, and used the proceeds to build a new, larger church elsewhere in town. CW then proceeded to raze the church to the ground.

Now lest I throw random accusations out there, let me make clear what I do not know: I don't know the circumstances of the sale, or why the church was razed, or what the congregation thought about it. Maybe it was their idea. I have no idea, I just moved here two weeks ago. But I do know the historical context, and I therefore know that there is a possibility that a small southern town in 1956 might not have been overly interested in preserving the historical heritage of certain people. And I know that Colonial Williamsburg has torn down or altered many nineteenth-century buildings for not being appropriate to the colonial setting, and a church built in 1856, even one on a somewhat secluded side street, doesn't have the right historical vibes. But the real story awaits proper research.

So, a digression: One of the most influential concepts for dealing with history in performance studies is Joseph Roach's idea of "surrogation." In Cities of the Dead, describing how "culture reproduces and re-creates itself," Roach writes
In the life of a community, the process of surrogation does not begin or end but continues as actual or perceived vacanies occur in the network of relations that constitutes the social fabric. Into the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure, I hypothesize, survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternates.

Being a smart guy and all, Roach of course doesn't romanticize this process, and indeed points out that it is the failures of surrogation, the "mildly incontinent sentimentalism to raging paranoia" that make the process interesting.

This a very useful way to think about the missing church in Colonial Williamsburg. The actual warm bodies and ritual traditions of First Baptist moved a few blocks north. But what surrogate stepped into the vacant lot on Frances Street? In terms of buildings, Colonial Williamsburg has gone the route of historical literalism: across the street from the vacant lot lies a reconstructed carriage house enclosing a small museum, marking the spot where the congregation met in the eighteenth century before building a permanent home. You can even meet Gowan Pamphlet, the preacher and former slave who founded First Baptist.

These efforts, however, are more recent. It wasn't until the 1970s that Colonial Williamsburg started more thorough efforts to include African American life, culminating in what is now a "Department of African American Interpretations and Presentations." What filled in the gap in the 1950s and 60s? Interestingly, it was music. Four years after the destruction of the First Baptist Church, CW made a movie called The Music of Williamsburg, and hired Alan Lomax to provide the music. Well-known African American singers from around the south were brought to town to perform self-consciously "historic" black music, old spirituals and work songs and the like. I only know about this because Carol Oja, now at Harvard but formerly at William & Mary, once taught a seminar in which her students did a historical ethnography of the making of that movie. She wrote it up in an article for the ISAM newsletter, and there are many fascinating implications not just for the history of Colonial Williamsburg but for how our knowledge of antebellum black music has been passed down to us. But it also shows it shows us that music can sometimes do an unfortunately good job at maintaining the color line from a safe distance. Colonial Williamsburg in 1960 wanted the music, but not the actual people making it. The performers brought in from out of town were not allowed to stay in the segregated hotels of the town, and had to be housed with local black families.

Luckily, the failures of surrogation can still force their way through. One of the most touching stories from this episode was the experience of Bessie Jones [MP3], the great gospel singer, who was one of the musicians hired for the film, and who showed how the historical record is sometimes more true in performance than in buildings. Oja tells the moving story, drawn from Jones's memoirs, of how the singer was invited to a party hosted by a white family. Asked to sing for the crowd, she couldn't help but telling the assembled interracial audience of her family's history in this town: her grandfather had lived in Williamsburg, as a slave. As she put it later, "Wasn’t a soul saying a word but me, and I just told them like it was.”

1 comment:

rrb said...

Fascinating post Phil. As I'm sure you know, Carol is a great proponent of doing research where you live and it seems that you've got a bit of that going too. The cool part about local topics is figuring out a way to connect them to your own academic interests. This post might be the start of an entire Hardy-Boys-style musicological guide to vacant lots.