When Is a Slave Not a Slave? At Colonial Williamsburg

When Is a Slave Not a Slave? At Colonial Williamsburg

Black actors at Colonial Williamsburg make some visitors upset as their portrayal of slave life is too accurate.

Published July 5, 2011

When is a slave not a slave? When he or she is an actor/interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, but some people get upset that the Black man or woman’s performance is so historically accurate.


During the last quarter of the 18th century, there was a very large Black population in Williamsburg, Virginia. Some were free, some skilled and some educated, and all lived under white men that argued about freedom and democracy — for themselves.


For nearly 40 years since Colonial Wiliamsburg was created in the 1930s, its administrators took slave history as seriously as the actual slaveholders held their slaves’ narratives. Not very.


The first Black interpreters were hired in 1979. One historian, Rex Ellis, rose to become vice president of the Historic Area for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and oversaw its programs and operations. He is now the associate director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.


Now there are at least eight Black interpreters.  They portray lives based on actual people, and individuals whose details come from several people who lived in Williamsburg. One person portrayed is a free man of mixed ancestry, Matthew Ashby.  Interpretations are based on actual people: Gowan Pamphlet, who works in a tavern, and Lydia Broadnax, a cook.


For many visitors, some of whom become emotional, it is speaking with the slaves that is the most difficult because they will not break character. Art Johnson, 49, is one of the Black interpreters. He told a reporter, "People will walk away, say they don't want to hear it. People sit down in awe."


Others defy visitor stereotypes. Deirdre Jones, like most of the actors, does a lot of outside reading about the time period she works in and knows well, which upsets some. She says, "People tell me (as Kate, a slave), you can't read! And I say, there's evidence that she could."


The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation says it “operates the world’s largest living history museum, the restored 18th-century capital of Britain’s largest, wealthiest, and most populous outpost of empire in the New World.”


Click here to learn more about African-American colonial life. 

(Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Colonial Williamsburg)

Written by Frank McCoy


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