African-American history comes into focus at region's museums in 2019

Staff writer

There was a perceptible sense of excitement inside the St. George Tucker House as about a dozen donors awaited the arrival of James Armistead Lafayette.

Dressed in dark brown clothing, Colonial Williamsburg historical actor-interpreter Stephen Seals strode past an American flag and into the room, where he took his position at the front of the audience in his role as the Revolutionary-era spy.

Seals went on to describe the life and experiences of Lafayette, an educated, enslaved African American who supported the colonists’ cause by spying on the British during the American Revolution. In the voice of the slave, Seals recounted meeting the Marquis de Lafayette, who urged him to serve the American cause as a spy.

But there were questions: Cross British lines and risk death conducting espionage on behalf of freedom fighters who would hold him in bondage? Or cross British lines and never return, abandoning his family to secure the freedom British authorities dangled in front of runaways?

James Armistead Lafayette, who later adopted his last name in a nod to the French noble, ultimately collected intelligence that influenced the outcome of the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, where American and French troops inflicted a defeat on British forces that ensured the success of the Americans’ struggle for independence.

But Lafayette remained enslaved for years after the war. Eventually, he earned his freedom and bought his family members, freeing them as well.

A complex man, in a complex country, in complex times.

“It’s a wonderfully American story,” Seals, then out of character, told the audience seated around him in one of the historic home’s ornate rooms on a cold morning in late January. “It belongs to each and every one of you sitting in this room just as much as it belongs to me. It is part of the American character.”

Between the 2019 Commemoration, which counts the arrival of the first Africans to English North America among its primary focuses, and this year’s 40th anniversary of African-American interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg, Lafayette’s story, and the story of African Americans, is getting a closer look this year.

It’s a traditionally underrepresented experience that resonates from one tip of the Historic Triangle to the other. A panoply of programs at Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Settlement and beyond seek to shed further light on the experiences of African Americans, by viewing events as they saw them, in the nation’s formative years.

“One of the things I appreciate the most is that the programs have a point of view, and it’s the point of view of the people who actually lived it. You’re getting the stories about the enslaved from their point of view,” said Seals in an interview in December. Seals, who has worked at Colonial Williamsburg for more than a decade, is manager of program development for African American and religion interpretation. He also is the coordinator for the foundation’s 40th anniversary programming.

Telling human stories

If any one place is the cradle of the United States, the Historic Triangle has a strong claim.

On one point is Jamestown, the swampy outpost on the edge of the British Empire that was the seed for a nation that would stretch across a continent. On another is Williamsburg, the state’s Colonial Capital and a site of rebellious fomentation and action. And, finally, on the York River is Yorktown, where battlefield success brought the British to the negotiating table to end America’s war of independence.

But while there are stories of discovery and military victory here, there are also stories of human bondage and discrimination.

When Americans have a warts-and-all understanding of their history, and when all Americans see black history as part of a shared American identity, it leads to a greater understanding of America’s history. As such, there’s a special responsibility to tell the story of America’s founding, and that story includes the enslavement of African Americans, Seals said.

It also includes an understanding that enslaved people were more than enslaved.

“It really all comes down to showing the humanity of these people,” Seals said. “Though by law they were considered slaves, if you asked them they would say: I’m a mother. I’m a carpenter. I love this man. I love this woman. I can’t really stand this person.

“Telling the story in that manner, I think, connects to the audience in a way that just giving them a history lesson or a book could never do,” he said.

Special programs

Colonial Williamsburg will hold a year of special exhibitions, lectures, film screenings and other programming to demonstrate the lives of early African Americans as they were lived.

“At Colonial Williamsburg we leave behind the din of the modern world to engage face-to-face with the men and women, enslaved and free, who lived amid the contradiction and promise of our nation’s founding,” said Beth Kelly, vice president of education, research and historical interpretation. “Our shared history is told more completely through the courage and commitment of our world-leading interpretive staff, and in 2019 we invite guests to hear their stories.”

During February, Colonial Williamsburg will put on additional African-American interpretive programming, which is a regular part of its calendar, in honor of African American History Month.

“Freedom to Slavery,” which chronicles an enslaved woman’s escape and assimilation into an Indian tribe only to be returned to colonists as part of a treaty, makes a return after not being performed in years, Seals said.

In another program, “A Gathering of Hair,” African-American women, both enslaved and free, prepare for a gathering and discuss their personal lives.

Both of those programs run multiple times throughout February, according to Colonial Williamsburg’s online event calendar.

“Revealing the Priceless” is a new special exhibition that runs Feb. 18 to Dec. 31 in Raleigh Tavern. The exhibit memorializes each black man and woman known to have lived in Williamsburg from 1763 to 1785. It also explores the contributions of interpreters, historians, curators and others who contributed to telling the story of African Americans in Williamsburg.

Colonial Williamsburg’s own commemoration of 40 years of African-American programming comes in tandem with the 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution -- a statewide, year-long commemoration of key events that transpired in 1619 and played a role in forming the United States, including the first recorded arrival of Africans to English North America.

Alongside nods to the anniversaries of the first meeting of a representative legislature in English North America and the first year English women were recruited in large numbers to come to the Jamestown colony, the 2019 Commemoration recognizes that in 1619, the first Africans arrived in English North America.

“The history of 1619 has been lost in many ways to the world’s view,” commemoration director Kathy Spangler said.

As much as possible, the 2019 commemoration has tried to blend the three cultures — African, English and Native American — into as many shared events as possible to illustrate that there isn’t just white English history or black history or American Indian history, but American history, and that American economic systems, social systems and customs and cuisines evolved in this context, Spangler said.

“The importance of telling the African American story was essential and one we knew we had to deliver on,” Spangler said.

To commemorate the arrival of the first Africans to English North America, the 2019 Commemoration and the Fort Monroe Authority will hold a dedication ceremony for a renovated education and visitor center that emphasizes African-American history and the significance of the Fort Monroe site in Hampton Aug. 23-25. The first Africans arrived at Point Comfort, where the fort is located. During the Civil War, escaped slaves found their freedom at the fort, which remained in Union hands.

Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation likewise has programming to commemorate African American history month and the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans.

The first Africans to come to English North America were taken in west-central Africa and hailed from an Angolan civilization, which is on display in galleries at the Jamestown Settlement museum. Those exhibits are joined by interactive experiences and galleries focused on African-American soldiers on both sides of the American Revolution at the American Revolution Museum.

The first African woman mentioned by name in Jamestown’s historical record, Angelo, is the impetus behind “After Angelo: Celebrating Black Women in America,” which takes place Feb. 23. The event features live jazz and blues music performances.

While the popular image of the Continental Army soldier is a white man in a blue coat, it wasn’t uncommon for his comrade-in-arms to be a black man. It also wasn’t unheard of for there to be black men across the battlefield fighting for the British army.

To tell those stories, the American Revolution Museum will hold its “Forgotten Soldier” special exhibition June 29 to March 22, 2020. The exhibition follows the stories of black soldiers who fought in the American and British armies during the Revolutionary War.

But wherever a program takes place, and whatever form it takes, the end goal is to bring all Americans closer together by exploring the experiences of African Americans as part of an American story.

“By knowing these stories, by understanding these and by experiencing these stories, you’re learning a little bit more about what it is to be an American. You’re becoming a better American by understanding your history,” Seals said.

African-American historical programming

The following are highlights of the region’s African-American programming related to African American History Month, the 2019 Commemoration and Colonial Williamsburg’s 40th anniversary commemoration of African-American interpretation.

Colonial Williamsburg historical interpretation: Colonial Williamsburg will feature some of the best examples of its year-round interpretive programming, as well as new programs during African American History Month. Programs include “Music was my Refuge,” presented 3 p.m. Tuesdays in the Raleigh Tavern, themed tours at the Capitol, Governor’s Palace and Peyton Randolph House as well as interpretation at Caesar Hope’s Shop. Special programming is presented daily in February at 1 and 3 p.m. at Raleigh Tavern.

“Revealing the Priceless:” The special exhibition at Raleigh Tavern memorizes, by name, every black man and woman known to have lived in Williamsburg from 1763 to 1785, the years Colonial Williamsburg interprets.It also recognizes the historians, interpreters and others who contributed to the telling of the story of African Americans in Williamsburg. The exhibition runs Feb. 18 through Dec. 31 at Colonial Williamsburg.

“After Angelo: Celebrating Black Women in America:” The exhibition celebrates the legacy of Angelo, the first African woman mentioned by name in Jamestown’s historical record, with live blues and jazz musical performances by Liz Montgomery and Jazz Trio and Jackie Scott and the Housewreckers in a ticketed event that runs 6-10 p.m. Feb. 23 at Jamestown Settlement. Throughout the day there will be music, panelists and a keynote speaker focused on experiences of black women.

Tenacious Women Lecture: “Matter Out of Place: The Writing of Ar'n't I a Woman:” At this lecture Deborah Gray White, a Rutgers University professor, will examine the historical profession through personal experience researching and writing "Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South" 7 p.m. April 4 at Jamestown Settlement.

“Mother Tongue:” An original play, this performance at Jamestown Settlement imagines the stories of three women:– Matoaka, a Native American, Anne Burras Laydon, an English woman and Angelo, an African woman – as they consider if and how the future will remember them. The performance is a ticketed event. May 10-11 and May 16-18.

“Forgotten Soldier:” The special exhibition follows the stories of black soldiers who fought in the American and British armies during the Revolutionary War. Programs include lectures, genealogy workshops and interpretive demonstrations. The event is held in conjunction with the 2019 Commemoration. June 29 to March 22, 2020, at the American Revolution Museum.

African Arrival Commemoration: To commemorate the arrival of the first Africans to English North America, the 2019 Commemoration and the Fort Monroe Authority will hold a dedication ceremony for a renovated education and visitor center that emphasis African-American history and the significance of Aug. 23-25 at Fort Monroe in Hampton.

Three community events will be held at the Hennage Auditorium at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg that explore the past, present and future of African-American historical interpretation 5:30 p.m. May 10, July 5 and Oct. 18, respectively.

For more information about Colonial Williamsburg programming, visit

For more information about Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation programming, visit

For more information about 2019 Commemoration programing, visit

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007,, @jajacobs_

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