In Williamsburg, the Painful Reality of Slavery |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 1999; Page A1
WILLIAMSBURG—As America's premier pre-Revolutionary tourist attraction, Colonial Williamsburg is known for its sanitized and rather bloodless version of history -- white men in breeches making speeches while white women in aprons churn butter. It is a history of good Patriots vs. evil Redcoats, of freedom vs. oppression. Choosing sides has been easy.
But a gripping program unveiled here a few months ago, called Enslaving Virginia, weaves the shameful history of human bondage into the fabric of storytelling at Williamsburg, underscoring a Revolution fought for the liberty of some, but not all. This edgy new representation of Colonial life casts costumed actors as slave leaders and slave owners while paying tourists find themselves in the roles of slaves.
The reenactments are so realistic that some audience members have attacked the white actors in the slave patrol, who have had to fight to keep their decorative muskets. And when some early performances drove young children to tears, Williamsburg added "debriefing" sessions afterward to help calm them.
One visitor even attempted to lead his own revolt against the slave handlers. "There are only three of them and a hundred of us!" he yelled. The actors had to step out of character to restrain him.
At an attraction that historically has appealed almost exclusively to whites, the skits have stoked particularly strong emotions among African Americans, some of whom welcome frank discussion of a topic often given short shrift, even as they and others are discomfited by repeated images of subjugation. Several black actors have refused to portray slaves because they find it demeaning and emotionally wrenching.
Such powerful reactions reflect the uneasy racial tensions that simmer across American society a full 300 years after Williamsburg was crowned capital of England's largest and richest colony.
Even as Enslaving Virginia plays at the 173-acre historical park, debate rages 50 miles to the west in Richmond over the placement of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's image along a waterfront promenade. And visitors to Charlottesville are still coming to terms with the idea that Thomas Jefferson, democracy's icon and a onetime Williamsburg resident, likely fathered a child with one of his slaves.
"The program is about the contradiction between freedom and slavery in Colonial America, but it's also about the contradictions of race in America today," said Harvey Bakari, development manager of Williamsburg's African American program. "One minute, they'll be standing and cheering when Patrick Henry talks about liberty, but the next minute they have to confront the reality of racial discrimination. . . . When they react the way they do, people almost seem to be attempting to right the wrongs of the past, to step into history and say, 'Don't do this!' "
On a sweltering recent afternoon, more than 100 tourists assembled quietly under a spreading oak, participants in an illegal slave gathering, circa 1775.
The royal governor had just issued an enticing offer meant to drive a wedge between the slaves and their rebel owners: Side with the king and go free. Some slaves weighed fighting for the British while others argued the whites should be left to kill one another.
Suddenly, without warning, the slave patrol appeared -- three white men bearing muskets, intent on breaking up the meeting. The militia bounded into the clearing as the frightened crowd gave way.
Charis Redmond, 7, grabbed her mother's arm.
"Are those real guns?" she asked. "Are we in trouble?"
Pam Redmond assured her daughter that it was just playacting, that the muskets had no bullets. For Redmond and her husband, Eric, the exchange was one of dozens they would have throughout the day with their children and between themselves about the hidden role of African Americans in the birth of their nation.
On their first visit to Williamsburg a year ago, the New Carrollton couple left the park angry. The story of slavery's role in the Colonial town seemed tacked on and half-hearted, they said.
This year, after hearing about the new emphasis on African American perspectives, the Redmonds brought their three girls and Eric's parents along for what they hoped would be a better experience. They were not disappointed.
By focusing on the personalities of several key slave characters, the new program brings their humanity to life, family members said. Also, they had more opportunities to talk with actors and park experts about the experiences of Colonial slaves. And Redmond, a theology professor at Washington Bible College in Lanham, said he welcomed attention to the importance of religious faith among Williamsburg's early black population.
"I used to think, 'Why go to Williamsburg? There's nothing there about us,' " said Redmond's mother, Linda Redmond, of Forestville. "Now there is, even if it's not something I'm happy about or comfortable with. These kids need to know about this side of history."
Redmond was not alone in her earlier dismissal of Williamsburg, where African Americans account for just 4 percent of nearly 1 million annual visitors.
Twentieth-century visitors often are surprised to learn that free and enslaved blacks made up more than half of Williamsburg's 1,800 inhabitants in the 18th century. Yet their story generally has been played down, told mostly on a re-created plantation six miles from the main grounds and overshadowed by Henry's speeches on freedom and Jefferson's discourses on horticulture.
The effort to sharpen the park's focus on race got its start five years ago with the controversial reenactment of a slave auction as part of a three-day celebration of the coronation of George III. NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference members protested what they called the trivialization and degradation of African American history.
Williamsburg stuck with the idea of explaining the role of blacks in Colonial times until it became a major focus of programming this year. Black actors were introduced into the town's "living history museum" concept in the 1970s and now make up almost 10 percent of the 578-member ensemble.
"The slavery perspective was in very small doses," spokeswoman Kate Lanier said last month as she walked the path leading to the Colonial courthouse, one of 88 original buildings in the historic area. "You wouldn't see many slave characters walking down the street, or walking into the programs. It was separated. But this year it's everywhere."
In the new skits, slave leaders risk punishment by speaking up at white gatherings. They discuss with the audience the pros and cons of siding with the British, and -- in one especially popular narrative -- a slave and his pregnant wife anguish over whether to attempt an escape.
The frankest, and potentially most disturbing, treatment is still to come: A reenactment that debuts this month will focus on the brutality endured by slaves, including the graphic sounds of whippings. Printed schedules will contain a prominent warning for parents.
King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia NAACP, praised the new program for its extensive treatment of Colonial slavery. The 1994 auction was objectionable, he said, because it treated the subject as a trifling aside.
James Ingram, a Baptist minister who portrays the Rev. Gowan Pamphlet in the Williamsburg skits, said the program tells the history of people who didn't have that chance for themselves. "It's an honor for us to tell that story. It needs to be told, and it needs to be told truthfully."
In one of the program's more popular plots, which play throughout the day around town, a wiry young slave named Peter Southall is arguing with his wife, Sarah, behind Raleigh's Tavern. The British are offering freedom, and he wants to take it; she worries about their safety and that of their unborn child.
A hush falls over the courtyard. Scores of onlookers lean forward, eager to see what will happen.
"It's like going to the next chapter of a good book. I want to know what happens, but I'm afraid to read it," said Rennie Siebenhar, a teacher from Oxford, Ohio, who, like many in the audience, is tracking the unfolding story.
Children follow the actor playing Peter from site to site, even as he tries to use the restroom or grab lunch. On occasion, several youngsters have formed a protective circle around Peter to ward off the slave patrol.
One 10-year-old boy from Alabama, a white child, came back a second day wearing full Colonial regalia and begging to accompany Peter to Norfolk to join the British.
"The children are very affected by the story," said Richard Josey, who portrays Peter. "They seem to really take it to heart."
Jason Murdock, 9, said he chose a return visit to Williamsburg over a trip to Disney World. Jason, who is white, said he has few black friends back home in Denver and wanted to help Peter. Outfitted in a tricorn hat, he was invited to be Peter's confidant, and in the last scene of the day, they escaped with Sarah as the audience applauded enthusiastically.
"Some people were doing wrong things and some people were doing right things, and I just picked the side of the people doing the right things," Jason said later. "I just think a person's a person. A white person is a person; a black person is a person -- it doesn't matter."
In Colonial times, it did. The rules governing blacks in Virginia stipulated that no more than five could gather in one place.
When a white patrol leader, his voice dripping with contempt, tried to break up an illegal gathering during a recent Williamsburg skit, Pam Redmond laughed out loud in the audience.
"That's still illegal," she said to no one in particular. "Five blacks on a corner right now -- that's grounds for arrest in most places, or at least investigation."
Such comments typify the major difference park officials have noticed in the reaction of blacks and whites to the characterizations. Although both groups unite in hissing at the slave patrol, whites tend to view the depictions as relics of the past while blacks draw comparisons to the present.
"The details are different," Eric Redmond said, pushing his youngest daughter's stroller. "But the pattern and the overall themes -- a lot of those are the same."
Aristine Cummings, a 68-year-old visitor from Philadelphia, said Colonial Williamsburg takes on a different sheen when viewed through African American eyes.
"I experienced a lot of what's going on right here in front of us," said Cummings, who grew up in the Jim Crow South. "It's the way they talk to you, the way they look at you, the way they act like they own you. I'm from Georgia originally. I know what that's like."
The resonance of the historical skits can be painful for black visitors. It is not uncommon for some to walk away from graphic scenes or criticize their tone, while others have taken issue with the portrayal of a free black woman who owned slaves herself.
Khalfani, the NAACP director, said such reactions are not surprising. "A lot of African Americans will tell you they don't want to talk about it, they don't want to see it, they don't want to be reminded of that subservience," he said. "The handwriting of the past still writes on the slate of the present."
Bakari and others at Williamsburg say most blacks have indicated that they were impressed by the program.
Lynn and Sharon McCallum, for example, came all the way from Yokota Air Base in Japan to experience Enslaving Virginia, hoping to arrange for the actors to visit their base. The couple, schoolteachers overseas for more than two decades, said that expatriate African Americans are starved for connections with their heritage and culture and that few realize that slavery played a role in America's fight for independence.
"For so many years, we didn't want to be reminded of slavery," Sharon McCallum said. "But when I walked out of this program, I was proud. This country was built on the backs of my people, and we survived and we flourished."
Her husband, walking along the dirt road toward Williamsburg's working windmill, agreed.
"This gives a whole new meaning to the Fourth of July for me," he said. "As blacks, I've always felt like we had to justify ourselves as Americans, as if we hadn't contributed anything. But this shows that we did. This shows that we helped make this country what it is from the very beginning."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company