Distinguished Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg has played host to numerous distinguished visitors in the form of foreign dignitaries and heads of state, royalty, musicians, actors, and writers. A significant series within Colonial Williamsburg's official archive of photos taken by staff photographers, the distinguished visitor images offer a fascinating glimpse into many historic occasions and special events that took place within the living history museum. A selection is offered here to give researchers a sense of the scope of the subjects represented.
Government officials, actors, and even sports stars, began arriving at Colonial Williamsburg soon after the museum opened its first exhibition buildings in the 1930s. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Duke of Gloucester Street in 1934 becoming the first United States president to experience its beauty and historical significance.1 The completion of the Williamsburg Inn and Williamsburg Lodge offered gracious accommodations to attract other well-known guests. Child actress Shirley Temple celebrated her birthday in Williamsburg in 1938, while tennis star Helen Hull Jacobs registered as the first occupant at the Williamsburg Lodge in 1939.2
During World War II, trips to Colonial Williamsburg served as a form of indoctrination for servicemen from neighboring military bases. Troops watched orientation films, attended lectures, and toured the Historic Area as a way to remind them of what they were going overseas to fight for.3 In 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived for a post-war visit to Colonial Williamsburg that included drinks at the Raleigh Tavern, a tour of several exhibition buildings, and a special dinner at the Williamsburg Inn.4
The late 1940s marked the beginning of a steady stream of visits by foreign dignitaries. The United States Department of State began a custom of bringing foreign heads of state down from Washington, D.C. as part of their official visits to the United States. As a result, Colonial Williamsburg began expanding its focus to embrace a more international audience and celebrate some of the timeless democratic ideals embodied in the historic events that took place in colonial Virginia.5 The growing living history museum also attracted the attention of Walt Disney, who visited in 1948 and offered his perspectives and ideas on the museum's operations.6
During the 1950s, a standard protocol for VIP visits encompassed trips to Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown. Foreign visitors received a rapid overview of American history and ideals as a form of education by State Department officials. 7 Queen Elizabeth II's royal visit for the 250th anniversary of the arrival of settlers at Jamestown marked an important initial step towards strengthening ties between Great Britain and Colonial Williamsburg.8 A succession of British dignitaries, ranging from the Lord Mayor of London to the Prince of Wales, followed.
Colonial Williamsburg President Carlisle Humelsine used his former State Department connections to turn Colonial Williamsburg into what many dubbed "State Department South." He oversaw over one hundred visits by foreign dignitaries who came to the area as part of official State Department itineraries. The typical visit during the Humelsine era included a carriage ride, along with stops at major exhibition buildings, such as the Capitol and the Palace, as well as one or two of the trade shops.9
The 1960s and 1970s also witnessed a number of television stars descending upon Colonial Williamsburg with their accompanying production crews. Animal star Lassie performed in several scenes around the Historic Area as part of a larger travel series for his popular television show. Perry Como and John Wayne explored many aspects of Colonial Williamsburg during the filming of Perry Como's Early American Christmas in 1978.10
Visits by foreign heads of state culminated in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan hosted the Ninth Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations at Colonial Williamsburg. The unprecedented closure of the entire Historic Area for the weekend in May 1983 marked a gamble on the part of Colonial Williamsburg officials to generate more international interest via the three thousand journalists covering the event. 11 Participants included Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone of Japan, Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani of Italy, Prime Minister Elliot Trudeau of Canada, Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, and President Francois Mitterand of France. Opera singer Leontyne Price also contributed to the event's pageantry by performing at one of the state dinners.12
In the decades which followed, a combination of actors, entertainers, sports stars, political candidates, and government leaders continued to visit in a steady stream of both official and "undercover" appearances. Two of the more high profile dignitaries included President Zhang Zemin of China in 1997 and a return visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 2007. Whether drawing large crowds or simply enjoying the peaceful charm with a few friends or Colonial Williamsburg escorts, each visitor has left their mark in the form of a fascinating legacy of photos.Endnotes:
(1) Donald J. Gonzalez, The Rockefellers at Williamsburg (McLean, Va.: EPM Publications, 1991), 102.
(2) Hugh DeSamper, Welcome to the Williamsburg Inn (Williamsburg, Va.: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in association with Lickle Publishing, Inc., 1997), 4.
(3) Anders Greenspan, Creating Colonial Williamsburg (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), 154.
(4) Brian A. Dementi, Churchill & Eisenhower Together Again: A Virginia Visit (Manakin-Sabot, Va.: Dementi Milestone Publishing Inc., 2015), 85.
(5) Greenspan, 79.
(6) Gonzalez, 110.
(7) Greenspan, 117.
(8) Greenspan, 111.
(9) Gonzalez, 110.
(10) Mary Theobald, “Every Man a King: The VIPs Visit Colonial Williamsburg” Colonial Williamsburg Journal 23, No. 3 (Autumn 2001): 40.
(11) Greenspan, 153.
(12) “The World Comes to Williamsburg,” Colonial Williamsburg 4, No. 1 (Autumn 1983): 20.
For further information: https://research.colonialwilliamsburg.org/Foundation/Journal/Autumn01/vips.cfm