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Half the History

By Nicole Trifone

The names of Williamsburg’s free and enslaved black people could have been lost to history.

During the Revolutionary era, African Americans made up more than 50 percent of Williamsburg’s population. Their personal documents and possessions, already few in number, were unlikely to survive through time. Often, they are listed in records only by a first name whether it be a baptismal record or among accountings of furniture and livestock. The names we know are often recalled as part of other people’s stories, not their own.

We should not know that an enslaved Gowan Pamphlet preached to hundreds of followers of the Baptist faith and eventually gained his freedom; that Jupiter served as Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved right-hand man for much of the time he lived, studied and worked in Williamsburg; that Lydia Broadnax ran her own boarding house while serving as George Wythe’s housekeeper after he granted her freedom.

Their names and those of thousands of other African Americans who lived in Williamsburg surfaced as historians studied the powerful people around them. In 2019, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is celebrating a 40-year commitment to telling their stories.

“These stories were not valued by society for centuries,” said Stephen Seals, who portrays the enslaved Continental Army spy James Armistead Lafayette and also serves as a community outreach and program development manager. “People of the time did not think that these would be stories that we would want to look at and hold up on high in the future, but we do. We make sure their stories are told.”

Throughout 2019, Colonial Williamsburg will highlight its African American programming and will host a three-part lecture series sponsored by the Ford Foundation that will explore the past, present and future of African American interpretation.

The Past 40 Years

The first comprehensive Historic Area interpretation of black history began in 1979 as part of the newly launched living history program, which featured black and white costumed actors performing first-person portrayals of ordinary people.

Rex Ellis, Montrose Cones and Darin Taylor performed the inaugural character interpretations of African Americans, for the first time sharing with guests the individual stories from the enslaved and free black population of 18th-century Williamsburg.

With its focus on individuals, the living history approach broke down categories of people — the enslaved, women, tradespeople, poor whites — into personal stories more relatable to guests who often sought to see themselves in the past. This approach grew from the national trend in the 1960s and 1970s toward studying social history, which emphasized the importance of understanding all of the people who made up a society.

“Social history introduces you to living, breathing, three-dimensional people,” said Ellis, who debuted the first portrayal of the Rev. Gowan Pamphlet in 1979. “It champions everyday people in ordinary lives. It gives you a broader understanding of what the period was really like during that period of time.”

Though the living history program marked the Foundation’s official commitment to teaching black history in the Historic Area, black people had for decades worked in various costumed roles, contributing to the educational mission through third-person interpretation in positions such as carriage drivers, tradespeople and tavern workers. From 1941 to 1943, a black family, James and Geraldine Payne and their two young daughters, actually lived on the second floor of the Wythe Kitchen; they went about their days in costume and interacted with guests who toured the site.

The Foundation’s initial effort to research slavery came through historian Thad Tate, who wrote the first monograph on the topic. The Negro in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg was first printed in 1957, and training for interpreters included lessons from Tate’s research. That same year a message repeater, which presented a two-minute lesson on slavery when a guest pressed the play button, was placed in the George Wythe Laundry.

Until the late 1970s interpreters were not expected or encouraged to teach guests about slavery. Interpretation had largely consisted of third-person scripts that often focused on the decorative arts and political history.

The Other Half, a two-hour walking tour, offered a look at 18th-century Williamsburg from the African-American perspective. (Tom Green/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

The introduction of the living history program proved successful and opened the door for more black history programs, like the renowned two-hour walking tour “The Other Half” and the long-running “Black Music Program,” along with new portrayals drawn from both real and composite figures from 18th-century Williamsburg.

Black history programming, as well as the research to support it, continued to expand. The African American Interpretation and Presentations Department was formed in 1988, and Ellis was its first director. Ellis later became the Foundation’s first black vice president before leaving in 2008 to join the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., where he is the associate director for Curatorial Affairs.

In 1989, Colonial Williamsburg opened the Slave Quarter at Carter’s Grove, marking the first time a U.S. history museum reconstructed slave quarters on their original sites using 18th-century methods. The site, which remained open for 13 years, offered an intimate view of slavery and the black experience on a Virginia plantation that had housed as many as 47 enslaved people in 1783.

Linda Rowe, a religion and slavery historian who retired from the Foundation after 50 years, remembers the research staff being encouraged by Cary Carson, former vice president of Research, to pursue leads in seemingly obscure places, trying to fill the gaps in black history.

“I think when you started 40 years ago seeing African Americans portrayed in person based on historical research, it began the telling of American history from the American side,” Rowe said. “It wasn’t just whether or not we were reflecting British politics and society. We began to look at the vast numbers of people who far outnumber the gentry class or well-to-do, the people who are the American story.”

The Interpreters

The story of the past 40 years in African American interpretation is as much about the people from history as it is about those who have portrayed them. The actor-interpreters endured pushback, both within the Foundation and outside, from the beginning.

Why talk about something so painful from America’s past?

Does focusing on the ugliest parts of our past hurt our society’s ability to move forward?

Will portraying an enslaved person invite hatred from the worst of us?

The Slave Quarter at Carter’s Grove showed an intimate view of slavery on a Virginia plantation. (Tom Green/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Within the black community, critics worried Colonial Williamsburg was trying to bring back “slavery times,” as one local minister suggested, or at least renew some of the degradation and humiliation of the Colonial period by dressing up a 20th-century African American as a slave.

The Foundation’s educational mission rested on the belief that “the future may learn from the past” — including its most shameful chapters. However, the concern for the interpreters proved to have merit.

Over the past 40 years, black interpreters have reported being subjected to racial slurs, having “boy” derisively yelled at them, hearing Dixie whistled by a guest, interacting with guests who have assigned themselves the role of slave owner, being touched as if an object and handling questions such as “Can I buy you?” and “Does your master know where you are?”

Incidents like these happen to this day. Ellis advises interpreters to stay focused on the historical fact that inspired them to take the job in the first place: In the 18th century, more than half the population of Williamsburg was black.

“If you did not know that, if you did not understand that, if you were not focused on that, you were missing half the history,” Ellis said. “If you don’t see African Americans in Williamsburg, you are missing half the history of the beginning of the nation.”

In the early years Ellis noticed one coworker, a black tavern worker, who would scowl or avert her eyes from him and his fellow African American interpreters. He suspected contempt for their participation in the living history program.

One day, several years later, the woman approached him for the first time: “When you first came here and started doing what you were doing, I thought it was the worst thing you could do for us and our people, but now I’m convinced that what you have done has made a difference in how people see our history,” Ellis recalled her saying. Her change of heart brought him to tears. It was the moment he knew the program was succeeding not only in teaching black history but also doing it in a way that could reach even its harshest skeptics.

“Here was someone who was 100 percent against what we were doing, whose opinion had changed because she had seen the positive and good work we were doing by our presence and by the information we were sharing with people,” Ellis said.

The Next 40 Years

Living history was just the beginning of African American interpretation and the teaching of black history at Colonial Williamsburg. Gradually, African American interpretation grew beyond the monologues in the middle of the street and began to be seen in all aspects of Historic Area programming.

Guests can see theatrical programs that explore not only the daily life of enslaved individuals but also the experiences of the actors who portray the enslaved. On a building tour, presentations center not only on the objects on display and the decorative choices but also on the people — of any station — who would have been seen in the building. In the trade shops, guests may see black apprentices hard at work or discover how enslaved individuals contributed to the skilled labor force in the 18th century.

“Character interpretation in particular allowed people to see African Americans as people who are not all that much different from themselves,” Stephen Seals said. “Colonial Williamsburg changed the way museums told the stories of the enslaved, and changed it for the better.”

In the next 40 years, Seals wants the Foundation to continue toward a more holistic approach to African American interpretation. The names, circumstances, hardships and triumphs of the free and enslaved black population should be found nearly everywhere a guest visits in the Historic Area just as their presence would have been found in the late 1700s, he said.

“We need to keep working toward telling the story of African Americans as part of the main American story,” Seals said. “It shouldn’t be a special telling, nor does that mean it would be at the expense of anyone else’s story. We want to add to the understanding of our American history, collectively. You can’t tell the full American story if you don’t tell the story of Africans in America during the Colonial period.”

40 Years of African American Interpretation

To celebrate 40 years of African American Interpretation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, historians, museum specialists and interpreters will discuss the past, present and future of African American interpretation in a lecture series sponsored by a generous grant from the Ford Foundation. Each lecture begins at 5:30 p.m. in the Hennage Auditorium.

For the next year, this lecture series and other programs that highlight the life of free and enslaved blacks during the 18th century will be noted with the 40th anniversary logo.

PAST / Friday, May 10

Join past leaders of the African American Interpretation and Presentations Department Rex Ellis, Christy Coleman and Dylan Pritchett in a discussion about the early days of interpretation.

PRESENT / Friday, July 5

The current Colonial Williamsburg interpreters who make African American programs possible share their work and talk about the importance of telling the shared American story.

FUTURE / Friday, Oct. 18

Historians, interpreters and museum specialists will discuss the future of African American programming. What stories still need to be told? And what new innovations will the future bring?

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