I take the responsibility of portraying Lee very seriously. I prepared for it by spending many hours studying what his typical day would have been like. My goal is to fairly represent this man, who spent most of his life working to maintain the president’s household for no compensation.
In the time I have been portraying Lee, I have had many enriching interactions with visitors. However, one recent dismaying experience has stuck with me.
A few weeks ago, a large number of middle school students from a suburban school took the tour. I spent much of the morning engaging in conversations with groups of teenagers and their chaperones. The young girls were especially fascinated by my uniform and Southern charm.
Before long, a simple request by one to take a picture turned into a photo shoot, as others approached, asking for their own photos to be taken with me. But what had been a pleasant experience took a turn for the worse when a middle-aged white woman approached me. Surrounded by impressionable young kids and patrons she was apparently chaperoning, she took hold of my left arm and said loudly, “I got one, I got one of the slaves. Imma take you.”
Startled, I remained in character and asked calmly, “Take me where?” She said she wanted me to talk to a group of girls nearby. At that moment the young women walked up, so I began telling my story, in character as Frank Lee. As I was speaking, the chaperone interrupted and said I should speak in my “slave voice.” She then changed her own accent, evidently attempting to show me what she had in mind: “Oh I’m talking like Aunt Jemima so you’ll understand me better.”
The young women stood silently by, observing. Two of them rolled their eyes, seemingly embarrassed and just as much in shock as I was.
As soon as this happened, the chaperone had them circle around me to take a picture, after which she announced, “Don’t get too close to him, we don’t know if he’s human or where he’s been.”
It felt like a sucker punch — one of those attacks where the person hits you hard, then runs away. Yet I wasn’t upset so much as disappointed: Because of the chaperone’s ignorance, these young women had perhaps lost out on their only experience to learn about the life of an enslaved person in an up-close and personal way.
Even worse, some of them might have gained the impression that it’s acceptable to act and speak in such a way.
So I’d like to make a request of anyone planning to visit Mount Vernon and take the Enslaved People Tour: It’s one thing to arrive with the expectation of experiencing a simulated moment of history, but do not become so entranced by the notion of experiencing history that you lose all sense of reality. If you do, I will walk away from you with a smile on my face and an extra pep in my step, in character.
For those of you who work directly with young people: Let my testament help you better understand how important it is to set the right example.