Local historians hope to see black history assimilate into American history

Staff writer

Inside the American Revolution Museum, there’s a rack of clothing that holds reproductions of Revolutionary War uniforms.

There’s the iconic blue wool coat of the Continental Army. Beside it is the forest green of a British ranger, and there’s several child-sized versions of uniforms as well.

There’s also a more humble garment, tucked between the pomp of French and Hessian uniforms: the uniform of runaway slaves who fought for the British Army as part of the 33rd Regiment of Foot.

The uniform is basic — a beige long-sleeved shirt made of linen, with “33 REG.T” on the chest and simple buttons.

“Is it as nice and sexy looking as these?” said Mark Howell, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation director of education, gesturing toward the other uniforms late last month. “No, of course not. But it makes a point.”

The clothing is inside the museum because clothing is one way modern audiences can connect with the people of 18th-century America. The decision to include the reproduction of a uniform worn by black men with uniforms worn by white men is a subtle example of the future local historians envision: one where African-American history doesn’t exist as a distinct subject, but rather as part of American history.

“Rather than do a separate thing all together, where you have the African-American experience over here, blend them with the other cultures and allow people to compare the cultures,” Howell said. “History isn’t black and white. It’s shades of grey.”

In 2019, the region’s museums look to highlight the African-American experience in early American history. That’s because this year brings two anniversaries: the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans to English North America in Virginia, which is recognized as part of the statewide 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution, and the 40th anniversary of African-American historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg.

An inclusive story

There’s been a movement toward incorporating African-American history as a more assimilated part of United States history, rather than a distinct side note. It’s trickier than you might think.

“I think that’s been a challenge for a lot of museums to figure out to get the story in without appearing patronizing. At the same time, trying to get new communities to come in and see us, because for generations, the story just wasn’t there,” Howell said.

As Howell spoke inside the exhibition space at the American Revolution Museum, he walked over to a display depicting the homes and experiences of different social classes in colonial America.

There’s a mannequin that depicts an upper-class woman in an ornate house, then another mannequin that depicts a woman of more middling means. The lower-class existence is represented by a black slave.

Though the mannequin depicts a black slave, that person’s lifestyle and housing — a log cabin with dirt floors — was similar to the majority of people living in the colonies, enslaved or free, black or white, Howell said, adding that 30 years ago, the same exhibit would likely have featured a poor white person to round out the social strata.

A similar motivation to provide a full, inclusive story drives Jamestown Rediscovery archeologists in an ongoing dig on Jamestown Island to uncover new details about the life of Angelo, the first African woman to appear in early American records. She was among the first enslaved Africans who came ashore in English North America in 1619.

Jamestown Rediscovery is two years into a three-year project to excavate about seven acres called the Angelo site, which is a part of the 40-acre town portion of Jamestown that’s mostly unexplored.

The site consists of domestic quarters, storehouses and a garden that belonged to Angelo’s owner, William Pierce.

David Givens, senior archeologist at Jamestown Rediscovery, is particularly interested in what can be discovered about food culture at the Jamestown colony, where African and English cooking methods and food blended together.

“What we’re trying to do, as we did with James Fort, is contextualize lost landscapes,” Givens said. “There’s never been a case when two cultures come together and the foodways aren’t changed.”

There’s more of a paper trail regarding interactions between Native Americans and Englishmen, but Africans aren’t as present in woodcuts and other artifacts, so in some ways the dig is about discovering that trail by any means possible.

“We’re looking to conceptualize that world that was lost to history. That’s so critical, because there is no founding narrative for first Africans in the American narrative,” Givens said. “Jamestown has always been about John Smith and Pocahontas. In reality, it should also be about Angelo and other first Africans. You should know that name.”

For Stephen Seals, actor-interpreter and manager for African American and religion interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg, African-American contributions are already part of the American story, they just need to be stitched more closely together.

“I see it being the story of America. That is not the story of the Founding Fathers and then here are some stories about black people. We’re moving toward it being the story of America,” Seals said. “My goal is that the story is understood by all Americans to be an American story. It’s not a black story. It’s not an African American story. It’s not a story of slavery but a story of America.”

Seals, who is also the organizer of Colonial Williamsburg 40th anniversary commemoration of African American interpretation, hopes that one day African Americans will be considered a truly transition-less chapter in the book of American history.

“I would love for the story of America – black, white, other – to just be something you experience,” he said. “I would like to see the need for African-American programming to nearly be gone.”

But African-American history can be a difficult conversation, and a more polarized political climate can make the work of telling African-American stories as part of a larger American story difficult.

“I think now, in this country, it’s harder to sit down and have a civil conversation about these things,” Seals said.

Museums can be the catalyst to break down those barriers, he said, adding that Colonial Williamsburg has been successful in breaking down barriers.

“What I enjoy most is when people say ‘this connected with me,’ ‘this made me cry,’” he said. “Part of the reason I love being here is the success we’ve had in these programs helping people understand their shared history.”

A shared history binds people together. If all Americans can look at the experiences of black Americans and accept them as part of their story; it creates better citizens, Seals said.

“You can’t talk about the story of America without talking about our victories, talking about our defeats, talking about our warts, but also talking about hope,” Seals said. “That’s where we need to be in moving toward the next 40 years.”

About this story

This story is the third of a three-part series that explores the relevance and challenges of telling the African-American story as part of early American history in the region’s museums, as well as how that story has been told in the past and how it may be told in the future. To see earlier stories, go to vagazette.com.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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