Former historical interpreters reflect on early days of African American programming at Colonial Williamsburg

Staff writer

The story behind the story took center stage during a recent panel that brought together former historical interpreters who played roles in the early days of Colonial Williamsburg’s African American programming.

For decades after its creation — established in 1926 but not opening its first public site until 1932 — Colonial Williamsburg barely discussed the story of the city’s 18th century black inhabitants, who totaled about half of the city’s population during the period.

Over the years there were more and more costumed African American employees, but they were almost entirely nameless servants and other minor roles. That stain on American history, the enslavement of African Americans, was a void.

But that changed in 1979, when a Williamsburg official asked students from Hampton University to audition to play the roles of enslaved people as first-person interpreters.

“He wanted some of our actors to audition to play the parts of slaves at Colonial Williamsburg. You don’t go to a predominately black university and make a statement like that unless you are three beers short of a six-pack or your cause is just,” said Rex Ellis, who at the time was a theater professor at the university.

Ellis, who would become the foundation’s vice president of historical interpretation, is now associate director emeritus for curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The pain of slavery and its legacy were a constant challenge for the pioneering black actor-interpreters who embarked on this mission, a theme that panelists at “African American Interpretation: Past” would return to again and again during the event, which was held at the Hennage Auditorium at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg on Friday.

Black people had been on the Colonial Williamsburg payroll for years. Ellis specifically mentioned black people who worked as tradesmen at the foundation. But their racial identity wasn’t part of their script.

“There were hired because they represented the diversity of Williamsburg, but in hiring them, they were selected based on what they did,” Ellis said.

Indeed, when the African American program started to take off, there was some push back from black tradesmen who wanted to focus on their craft.

So it was quite the change to hire black people to talk about black history.

And quite the personal challenge — after all, the white experience and the black experience in the 18th century were worlds apart, and accordingly, white actors and black actors stepped into different worlds when they donned petticoats, tri-corner hats and other period clothing.

Ellis recalled a specific marketing campaign that took him and other costumed employees to a department store in Cleveland. The Colonial Williamsburg actors paraded around the store and set up in visible locations to catch the eye of shoppers.

Ellis took up position next to white colleagues in fine, ornate clothing. It was painful to be seen beside him.

“Do you mind if I sit this one out?” He remembered saying to a colleague. After the event he met up with his white peer to explain his action. “I said, ‘when you put on 18th-century clothing, you feel important. It inspires you … when I wear the clothes I wear, I feel like a slave.’”

Just as challenges came from within, they also came from without. Interactions with visitors on the streets and inside the buildings of Colonial Williamsburg could range from hostile to irritating.

Christy Coleman started working as an actor-interpreter in the 1980s. Coleman, who is now CEO of the American Civil War Museum, was in her first week of employment when a visitor walked up to her in the street and casually referred to her using a racial slur.

“I was so taken aback by it,” Coleman said. Distraught, she went to find Ellis.

“He said to me ‘I understand, we’ve all been there. Now you have to ask yourself a question. Whether or not you are strong enough to tell your ancestors’ stories when nobody else wants to,’” she said. She reflected on his words and then returned to work.

There was no refuge inside the foundation’s building. When she worked as a house servant, visitors would pose inconsiderate questions.

“We live in America. We have a really difficult time dealing with the realities of racism and white supremacy and what slavery did. So inevitably someone would ask the question … are they good to you? Slavery isn’t so bad, is it?” Coleman recalled hearing. “No matter how well intentioned, it’s still annoying.”

But personal fortitude and a community of actors forged by shared experience lessened the burden. Coleman noted that shared faith and prayer among black actor-interpreters sustained them during their shifts.

An inner strength was key to successfully telling the story of America’s enslaved people, said Dylan Pritchett, another early black actor-interpreter.

“When you come out of yourself for your ancestors, you’re doing your job … you’ve got to feel it,” Pritchett said. “If you can take that and know how to come back to it in respect of your ancestors, then you can make it.”

African American Interpretation series

The “African American Interpretation: Past” panel was the first of three events that explore how the American American story is told at Colonial Williamsburg. On July 5, the series continues with “African American Interpretation: Present.” That event is followed by “African American Interpretation: Future” on Oct. 18.

All the events start at 5:30 p.m. and are free and open to the public. The panels are held in the Hennage Auditorium inside the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

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

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