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Williamsburg introduces African American Heritage Trail

African American heritage trail advisory committee member Johnette Weaver speaks about growing up in Williamsburg on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.
Nick McNamara / WHRO
African American heritage trail advisory committee member Johnette Weaver speaks about growing up in Williamsburg and the importance of including local Black history in the city narrative.

The project aims to collaborate with Black residents to tell an often unheard side of Williamsburg’s history.

Johnette Weaver never saw herself represented in the Williamsburg narrative growing up.

“As a kid going to Walsingham, when we went over to do fifth-grade history there was no story about me,” Weaver said. “It took being an adult well into her forties to find out that I have a rich and diverse history here in Williamsburg.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many Black residents of the city and surrounding county communities that a new project intends to change.

That project is an African American heritage trail that Williamsburg, aided by marketing agency JMI, officially kicked off in June.

The two-mile trail through downtown Williamsburg will connect the dots between personal stories about notable places, people and moments shared by the Black community in and around the city.

“Incorporating your voice, community voice, is crucial at every step of this process,” said JMI executive James Warren. “We want to include all of your stories, there will be a place for it in one part of this process or another.”

JMI executive James Warren encourages residents in and around Williamsburg to share their stories.
Nick McNamara / WHRO
JMI executive James Warren encourages residents in and around Williamsburg to share their stories.

JMI is responsible for collecting those stories and forming an overarching narrative by highlighting common themes between them. They’ll then tie what they learn to locations adorned with physical markers throughout the route as well as on a digital platform.

The agency will be working closely with city officials and Williamsburg’s African American heritage trail advisory committee to ensure the concept is meeting expectations.

Weaver is a member of that committee, and called the project healing and overdue.

“I believe if you know where you come from that you can do a whole lot better. I think that could change the trajectory of lives if the stories are told and put out there,” she said.

The trail has been on the city’s list of goals since 2020 and community input sessions in 2023 helped identify some starting points for JMI.

“At some point in the city, more than half our population was African American,” Mayor Doug Pons said. “That changed over the years, but these people are who we are as a city and they put so much effort to make us a special place and we need to tell that story.”

The project is expected to cost $2.4 million, with $1.2 million raised as of June. Williamsburg officials are seeking additional grant funds to reach the full amount.

JMI will collect stories through an online platform as well as through input meetings planned throughout the summer. A final concept is expected to go before the advisory committee and city council for approval in October.

“It’s not a bridge,” said advisory committee member Janice Canaday. “But it can help to lead to a bridge that helps all of us come back together and remember what community really meant – what it really felt like – before someone felt like they needed to separate us and show us where we belong and where we didn’t belong.”

"Our stories have been pushed back into the shadows, way back, too far back," Janice Canaday tells attendees of the kick off event for the Williamsburg African American heritage trail.
Nick McNamara / WHRO
"Our stories have been pushed back into the shadows, way back, too far back," Janice Canaday tells attendees of the kick off event for the Williamsburg African American heritage trail.

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