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Doctoral research details Magruder neighborhood history

  • Travis Harris stands in front of gravestones at Oak Grove Cemetery
    Magruder history:  Travis Harris Ph.D. '19 stands at the site of the historic Oak Grove Cemetery that was part of the African American neighborhood where the U.S. Navy built Camp Peary in 1942-43. Oak Grove Baptist Church owns the cemetery.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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A trip to the barbershop prompted Travis Harris Ph.D. ’19 to find material for his William & Mary doctoral dissertation locally in Williamsburg.

An offhand conversation with a descendant of a longtime local family while getting his hair cut connected Harris to a little-known piece of history.

In his dissertation, Harris details how residents of the predominantly African American neighborhood of Magruder were displaced when the Navy took over their property to build Camp Peary in the early 1940s. He is using his dissertation, “Lost Tribe of Magruder: The Untold Story of the Navy's Dispossession of a Black Community,” to launch the planned Magruder Project.

“The Williamsburg community is my community,” Harris said. “And I open with that because when I moved here as a doctoral student, of course it was the College of William & Mary that brought me here. But just throughout my life, I’ve always been involved with the community.”

Harris ended up doing his doctoral work in American studies locally after initially not understanding an offhand comment his barber made about his family being Portugese and being in Williamsburg a very long time.

“And I’m like, what? Bruh, what are you talking about?” Harris said. “Come on now. Y’all are not Portugese. And I kind of laughed him off.”

Harris came to W&M years earlier to study the intersection of hip hop and religion and originally considered following up on his master’s thesis work on rappers in St. Louis, Missouri, after the 2014 police-involved shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.

Looking for doctoral research topics closer to home, Harris focused on institutional racism and honed in on the Richmond and eventually Williamsburg areas. He followed up with his barber, local resident Allan Wynne, to get details on his family and started researching local neighborhoods where African American residents were displaced from their homes and livelihoods. Harris found examples in Magruder for Camp Peary in 1942-43, the Duke of Gloucester Street area for Merchants Square from 1910 to 1930 and the Charles’ Corner neighborhood that was displaced to build Naval Weapons Station Yorktown in 1918.

Papers had already been written on the other two, so he decided to focus on Magruder.

“I started talking to community members about this,” Harris said. “So that’s why I start with I was involved with the community. So it was actually through the conversations.”

Uncovering history

Back at the barbershop, he picked up the thread that started there. Wynne, was more than happy to expand on his original story of his family’s history. Though he had heard a little bit growing up, Wynne got the story from his 95-year-old grandfather that both sides of his family were originally from the Magruder neighborhood, and some were from Charles’ Corner, Wynne said.

There were Wynnes in the area spelled as both Wynn and Wynne, and though there were family resemblances, the details were unclear, Wynne said. Many of these people are distant relatives and can be traced back to Magruder.

“Not a lot of people my age have an in interest in the story,” said Wynne. “People have heard bits and pieces. Travis actually got into the academic side and it was a win for everybody. I’m just so proud of him for that.

“I was raised to have pride in where we come from, which is basically up from nothing to being middle class, but I didn’t know the full story. The big thing to me is learning more about your history.”

Harris met with several community groups to ask for details on local families that originated at Magruder. After sharing information on his studies at a meeting of local educational advocacy group Village Initiative, two descendants of families that lived at Magruder introduced themselves to him.

Harris found interviews with former Magruder residents that were done in 2010 by the Williamsburg Documentary Project and as part of a 1984 James City County oral history project, he said. Discovering that the Navy has records on Magruder, he then started doing primary research.

He mined Swem Library; Navy records and the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland; Library of Virginia and Colonial Williamsburg Library. Setting up an initial meeting with descendants of the Magruder families, Harris conducted his own interviews.

He discovered that some of the families did not receive the compensation they were promised for their lost land, homes and in some cases livelihoods of farming or working the nearby waterway. Harris also noted a W&M tie in that some of the displaced Magruder residents were housed in a temporary tent camp on the university’s campus that was a former Civilian Conservation Corps facility established as part of the New Deal.

Magruder Project

In documenting the history and following family ties to the present community, Harris decided that after completing his dissertation he would launch the Magruder Project. He will continue to live in Williamsburg and work on the project, while becoming a faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall.

“The Magruder Project’s main aim is to seek justice for the descendants of Magruder,” Harris said. “So in both my conversations and my research with the descendant community, they have three proposals that they would like.”

The first is access and ability to tend the cemetery at the former African American church site on Camp Peary. The second is economic restitution for families that did not receive compensation at the time, and the third is telling their story.

“I have documentary evidence showing, in addition to the oral testimonies, the oral histories saying that some people never received their money,” Harris said.

Harris is currently assembling a team to work on various aspects of the project, and he plans to let the community guide its direction. He would like to set up a website to give the public access to his research material. Initial steps are in the works to get the Magruder history included in the local schools’ K-12 black history curriculum.

Amy Quark, an associate professor of sociology at W&M who also works with the Village Initiative, had Harris speak to her students about his dissertation this past school year.

“I think it should be required reading for anyone who lives in Williamsburg, James City County and York County,” Quark said. “It just tells a history that many of us don’t know about.”