The Business of Williamsburg
While Eastern State Hospital and William & Mary remained the biggest employers, Williamsburg also hopped with new businesses, even factories. The Williamsburg Knitting Mill employed more than 100 people making men's underwear; it survived from 1900 to 1916. The Bozarth brothers and others operated lumber mills, taking advantage of the area's plentiful pine forests. Local farms fed the Williamsburg Canning Company, established in 1899. The city's first bank, Peninsula Bank, opened two years earlier. Telephone service began in 1901. Retail businesses abounded, serving not just Williamsburg residents but the farmers who lived in the surrounding countryside. The stores began advertising aggressively to attract customers. The railroad's arrival in 1881 and especially the Jamestown Exposition of 1907 helped stimulate the tourist trade.
Samuel Harris, as seen on this list of fees paid for business licenses, was the most successful merchant in Williamsburg. He moved here in the 1870s and opened a store that became the biggest in town. His customers included both blacks and whites. He later expanded into real estate. His standing in the community led to his election to the school board in the 1880s. He died in 1904.
Harris became a prominent man among African Americans nationally. His children moved in equally prominent circles. His daughter Elizabeth married Robert Russa Moton, the Hampton Institute educator who later succeeded Booker T. Washington as president of Tuskegee Institute. His son L. J. moved to Boston, graduating from Harvard Medical School and becoming a renowned eye specialist, the first medical specialist of color in the nation.
We have not yet discovered the date of this remarkable document, but it appears likely to be from the late 1910s or early 1920s, when labor unrest rocked the nation. It is notable both for the appeal of workers of color, likely women, to the community as a whole and for the existence of a labor union in Williamsburg at a relatively early date. If you know anything about this strike, please contact us.
Material in the Special Collections Research Center
- Working and Buying from the exhibit "A Most Thriving & Growing Place": Williamsburg Before the Restoration.