I grew up next to Colonial Williamsburg, which is an entire town preserved to resemble the 18th century. Started by John D. Rockefeller in the 1930s, it was created to immerse people during the founding era of our nation’s history—at least, the sanitized version. Although half the population was Black, their experience was entirely ignored. Slave quarters simply didn’t exist, and the white historical actors weren’t even allowed to mention slavery. By the early 1990s, this had changed drastically. Black history was featured much more prominently, although some argued this wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
In 1994, the museum’s all-Black Department of African American Interpretation and Presentations decided to showcase a horrible but true fact of life during this era: the slave auction. Colonial Williamsburg would be the first living history museum to re-create this type of event. It was based on historical research, and featured a freed Black farmer who tried to buy his wife’s freedom.
The portrayal received national media attention, and a crowd of more than 2,000 people showed up—many of them protesters. On one hand, critics such as the local NAACP called it crass entertainment; on the other hand, white conservatives were furious that this town would no longer just be a “celebratory” portrayal of American history.
Depicting the realities of Black history, which include many cruel chapters, clearly never crossed Rockefeller’s mind when he originally built this town. Yet it is a reality that museums across the U.S. still struggle with—especially living museums. The question of what history to present and how to present it is a challenge, and one that has, until relatively recently, been long ignored.
The challenge of integrating other people’s stories into the narrative, especially when those stories can be quite unpleasant, has led to different responses by different historical sites.
Some have decided to only showcase positive stories of African Americans and other minorities, while ignoring the atrocities. Other museums, like the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, decided to focus on the atrocities. Still others simply try to avoid the controversy all together.
Fort Monroe, Virginia, had clearly chosen the path of avoidance. This decommissioned base featured plenty of Confederate history, such as Robert E. Lee’s quarters and Confederate president Jefferson Davis’ jail cell.
Yet besides a small historical marker, the Black history at this site was ignored, and that decision wasn’t at all insignificant: in 1619, this was the site where America’s first enslaved Africans arrived.
This history was downplayed for a long time; however, a new African American superintendent, Terry Brown, was determined to change this. He started programs featuring the site’s critical history, and pushed for a large, permanent memorial at Fort Monroe, which is now in the planning stages. He also led the drive for a new exhibit at the nearby Hampton History Museum featuring the 1619 Landing.
Brown ensured some positive aspects of Black history at Ft. Monroe were also featured: Sergeant William Harvey Carney was stationed there, who became the first Black Medal of Honor recipient. The infamous Harriet Tubman, a trained nurse, treated wounded and sick African American soldiers at this historic site. (Tubman was also the first American female commander, of any race, to lead a U.S. military operation.)
Thirty minutes away from Ft. Monroe is Colonial Williamsburg. This living museum was emblematic of most historical sites that tended to paint prominent historical figures as unblemished heroes while whitewashing the past. By the 1990s, African American and American Indian historians were hired to give lectures and display exhibits on Black and Native American history during this time period. This helped to give a more honest and accurate portrayal of the full American story.
Very recently, Colonial Williamsburg also created a committee to explore the area’s queer history, since there were documented cases of prominent colonists who might have lived outside the norm of the time. There’s even a performance about a researched case of a relationship between two female colonists, although it isn’t featured on the museum’s website.
It’s relatively easy to do re-enactments depicting positive or neutral aspects of the history of people of color. For example, visitors can talk with free Black business owners of the time period, like Edith Cumbo.
Visitors can also learn about Black heroic figures, like James Armistead Lafayette, the Black spy for George Washington who discovered that British Army General Cornwallis was at nearby Yorktown. This led to the Battle of Yorktown, which literally ended the Revolutionary War. Or they could listen to a re-enactment featuring Gowan Pamphlet, a Black preacher who risked everything to found one of America’s oldest Black churches.
However, it becomes more problematic depicting the more painful—and common—stories of enslaved people. Even Lafayette’s heroic story is greatly complicated by the fact that he was still a slave.
Daryl Dupree and Raven Ford were two of the few African American visitors touring the area, and they told me they were not interested at all in seeing representations of slavery. Dupree said he had no intention of watching re-enactments involving enslaved people because he didn’t need to be reminded of the horrors. “Racism is still alive and well.” Ford, his companion, didn’t object to the programming, but said she didn’t believe any performance could properly interpret the cruelty of slavery in a 30-minute play.
One of the maintenance workers who overheard our conversation had a very strong opinion against portrayals of slavery, although he declined to be named for this story since he was contracted to work for Colonial Williamsburg. He said he feared the portrayal of slavery might traumatize Black children, and added that he didn’t think that was worth the cost of “educating white children about racism.” Although he opposed most slavery re-enactments, he also said he wanted to see re-enactments of what he called “fighting Blacks,” like Nat Turner, Charles Deslondes, and others who literally fought for their freedom.
Stephen Seals, the senior manager of Colonial Williamsburg’s African American history program, explained how he would respond to what seemed to be a common sentiment against slavery re-enactments by African Americans. “First, I understand. I used to feel exactly the same way. Yet the plight of our ancestors is not about suffering, it’s about survival. These performances humanize people like me, and that helps … so I don’t get shot!
“The legacy of slavery is racism, until we understand what happened, we can’t fix what is happening.”
Seals admits it can be hard to find Black actors willing to play roles that depict slavery. Some leave, but others, like him, view it as a duty. “Why would we expect others to care about our history if we don’t care about our own history? These stories are about our resiliency, and we show why enslaving people was so very wrong.”
These kinds of re-enactments, however, can take a heavy toll on the actors. As a result, living museums like Colonial Williamsburg pay for therapy for their interpreters. Although the actors say most of their experiences are positive and help clear up some ridiculous misperceptions, and at least one has found success with a comedic web series that highlights the ignorance of some of the guests, there are hostile and downright bigoted interactions they must sometimes deal with. Cheyney McKnight, a historical interpreter and founder of Not Your Momma’s History, recounts being in tears over rude guests.
Black actors depicting slaves will get uncomfortable questions, sometimes coming from children. They are asked if they are whipped, why they get punished, or how much they cost. Although one Black actor said when he asked a child why she wanted to know about the price of a slave, the answer wasn’t what he thought. “She wanted to know so she could tell her parents to buy my freedom.”
Seals said that as a Black kid, he didn’t get any of his own history. He grew up in a nearby area, but admitted he never visited Colonial Williamsburg until he was hired here. Perhaps not surprisingly, Black families make up a very small percentage of the visitors. Many see it as a museum for the American mythology of our history, but Seals said one of the reasons he came here was to try and change that by integrating Black history. The one takeaway, he told me, was that he wants people like the ones I interviewed to see these performances, which always includes a question and answer session afterward. ”I want them to leave feeling a strong sense of pride about their heritage, rather than shame.”
Some of the plays tackling the topic of slavery are metaphorical, like Thomas Jefferson having a discussion with Jupiter, his enslaved servant, over a chess game in a performance called “White Goes First.” Others, however, are much more intense. One that Seals wrote, based on a researched true story, is called “What Holds the Future?” It dramatizes the very real story of 50 African Americans who were abandoned by the last British royal governor and then sold as property by the new Patriot government.
In addition to uncomfortable interactions with the public, the actors also have to learn about the awful social dynamics of portraying their characters, such as averting their eyes when their overseers enter a room. Seals said it’s not for everyone. “We’re taught to be detached from your character. Doing these roles really tests that hypothesis.”
Chetter Galloway was at the controversial slave auction back in 1994. He said the storytelling at Colonial Williamsburg helped inspire him to become a professional storyteller. He has worked as an historical interpreter at living museums such as nearby Carter’s Grove Plantation, which has had its own controversy when they rebuilt 18th-century slave quarters in the 1990s. Galloway said he also understands the uncomfortable nature of portraying enslaved individuals, but supports it if they rise to the challenge of being accurate and respectful. “The lives about the people who were enslaved are important to tell because their voices will be silenced and left unheard if no one shares their stories.”
However, people like Seals and Galloway still have their work cut out for them in changing minds. A longtime African American friend of mine, who declines to be named, still refuses to go to Colonial Williamsburg or the other nearby sites of Jamestown and Yorktown. Even after reading the passionate arguments for historical re-enactment and watching a play online, she remained unconvinced. “There is no one arguing you need to re-enact the Holocaust” she told me. She noted that the crowd in the video she watched seemed to primarily be white, bringing up the question of who these reenactments are really for.
Yet depicting slavery is just one challenge. Another point of contention among many African Americans is the fact that so much emphasis is put on slavery. Most people think of Black history as being composed of a few major events, like slavery and the 1960s civil rights movement. However, African American history is a rich tapestry that has influenced every major event in our nation’s history and every facet of American culture.
The Harlem Renaissance marked the first time that mainstream publishers and critics turned their attention seriously to African American literature, music, art, and politics. There are beautiful exhibits at several museums, like this one at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, but unfortunately, they are normally showcased only during Black History month in February.
There were great historic successes, such as Black Wall Street in the early 20th century, which featured an affluent Black community with hundreds of businesses. It was destroyed by a two-day race riot from an angry white mob. It has a small memorial in Tulsa, and many people weren’t even aware that this community existed until HBO’s Watchmen series debuted in 2019.
There are multiple Black heroes in every single American war that most people haven’t heard of, including Colonel Tye, Abraham Galloway, Henry Johnson, Doris Miller, and my hometown Medal of Honor hero, Alwyn Cashe, just to name a few. Most people couldn’t name several prominent African Americans, such as the cardiologist who performed the first successful open heart surgery (Daniel Hale Williams); or the first female millionaire of any race in the U.S. (Madame C.J. Walker); or Robert Smalls, who is just awesome:
One teacher, Nikki Clarke, said after her elementary students tell her what they know about Black history, which is usually slavery and civil rights, she passes out potato chips (invented by renowned chef George Crum) and lets them play with super-soakers (invented by NASA engineer Lonnie G. Johnson) so they can associate Black history with things they love.
One of the big issues discussed with Seals is the fact that Black history is treated as just that: Black history. For centuries, history has been Eurocentric, and when movements started to include other kinds of histories, they were pigeonholed as separate. There will be a month, or a chapter in a book, or a separate event that showcases “other” history. Yet in reality, all history is integrated. The African American spy who ended the Revolutionary War is an American hero story, not just a Black hero story. There might hopefully be a time soon when historical events are treated that way.
Museums have to do a lot of soul-searching. One positive example comes from a different kind of museum: an art museum. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, has 60,000 square feet of art; almost all of it was composed of stodgy paintings or sculptures of old, white Europeans.
The local community, now largely people of color, weren’t visiting. William R. Peelle Jr., chairman of the board of trustees, did something pretty radical. He made it his mission to connect with the local, minority residents, and he did this by replacing the entire board of the museum to be more reflective of the local community. He decided he couldn’t change the museum to connect with the locals without people of color on the board.
He said that decision came after a lot of his own “soul-searching”:
What do we need to do to be a better board? That’s not a negative. It’s an opportunity to look at governance and what we should be in our role in Hartford. Museums have to begin to have that discussion.
I wish all museums would. People want to go to places that represent them, and museums can’t connect visitors to the past if they ignore their past. Putting people of color on museum boards is critical and very beneficial.
In Richmond, Virginia, I used to visit the Museum of the Confederacy. This museum celebrated the Confederate States, which shouldn’t have been too surprising as Richmond used to be the Confederate capitol. That museum went through an entire transformation thanks to its first Black and first female CEO, Christy Coleman, who was named by Time magazine one of “31 People Changing the South.”
She started at Colonial Williamsburg as an historical interpreter when she was only 17 years old, portraying a young slave named Rebecca. After completing her graduate degree in museum studies at Hampton University, she returned to Colonial Williamsburg as director for Interpretive Programs Development. She was later named CEO of the American Civil War Center in 2008 after six years as CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.
At the American Civil War Center, Coleman integrated the exhibits to tell a more complete story of the Civil War from all sides: Union and Confederate, soldiers and civilians, enslaved and free African Americans. It’s a more comprehensive experience, and one that has proven very popular with the local community.
She admitted to being exasperated at times at people who wouldn’t acknowledge historical fact. “Coming into this job, I don’t think I fully appreciated just how much heritage memory had usurped forensic history. I mean the records are right there!” Although she said she makes herself stop and take a less exasperated approach in order to try and “help people where they are.”
Coleman was so successful she was asked to take over the Jamestown/Yorktown Foundation, which is one of the most prominent historical foundations in Virginia. She oversees both the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Coleman has promised to do for these museums what she did in Richmond, and tell a more complete story about our nation’s early beginnings.
Many of America’s stories are painful and difficult, but so is our history. Unfortunately, there are those who don’t want these stories to be told. Many Republican lawmakers are determined to keep whitewashing Black history. In fact, conservative southern states have enacted legislation that punish schools that focus on slavery and the legacy of white supremacism, such as presented in the “1619 Project,” claiming efforts to teach that history is “racially divisive.”
Trump responded to the 1619 Project by appointing an 18-member commission of conservatives—none of whom were historians—to present a fictional, alternative history that painted the Founding Fathers as heroes for setting “the stage for abolition.” Their report also criticized current efforts to address racial discrimination because that somehow “hurts” equality and our social fabric.
This kind of willful ignorance is why a Republican legislator fiercely defended the Three-Fifths Compromise using a completely inaccurate alternate history that it was really about ending slavery. It’s also why this legislator in Louisiana wondered out loud why schools can’t teach the “good” of slavery:
Martha Huckabay, a Republican official in New Orleans who served as a Trump delegate, responded to this by doubling-down on the fiction of “good slavery” and fiercely defended the institution by falsely declaring “many of the slaves loved their masters.” This false mindset is not uncommon, and proves the need for another difficult and necessary discussion on what to do with education beyond museums. We must integrate the resilient histories of minority populations into America’s school curriculums.
Most public schools aren’t even mandated to teach Native American history at all. Japanese internment camps aren’t covered in history classes. Slavery is taught, but there are textbooks being used right now that encourage children to come up with “positive” aspects of slavery. A Colorado school board taken over by conservatives wants to focus on “patriotism” while curtailing teaching about the civil rights movement because it condones ”civil disorder.” This is why school board elections are so important.
It is possible to learn to appreciate the American experiment without the bizarre hero-worship of our founders, just as it’s possible to learn about America’s mistakes without succumbing to cynicism. Giving the complete story isn’t just good history, and it isn’t just a popular idea, it also gives people a foundation to forge a shared historical inheritance that can inspire civic responsibility. To put it another way: it makes for a better society.
I don’t pretend to know the answer of how to best engage with some of these difficult narratives, but I do know they deserve to be told; and making that effort would be better for everyone. Having minority representation on museum boards is a good step toward doing that, and better integration of their history will bring in much-needed new visitors from communities whose heritage we have ignored for far too long.
I know these changes are painful, but the hard work and emotional labor of telling these stories are already being done by people of color. The very least the rest of us could do is listen.
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