The small group of historical interpreters came to Colonial Williamsburg by many roads.
One was a university adjunct instructor in search of full-time work. Another followed in the footsteps of family members who worked at the foundation before him. Still another was motivated by a love of history.
But while they came by different roads, they’re united by the unique experience of telling the African American story as it unfolded in Williamsburg more than 200 years ago — a time when more than half the city’s population was African American, and the majority of them enslaved.
That experience, rife with challenge and cherished moments, took center stage during a recent panel discussion.
The event, which also featured short performances, came as part two of a three-part series on African American historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg, which commemorates 40 years of programming in 2019. The last part in the series takes place Oct. 18.
The event allowed the audience that crowded the Hennage Auditorium inside the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg on Friday a glimpse into the lives and experiences of the people who assume the burden of telling one of American history’s most appalling eras.
There’s a specific strain associated with being an African American telling the story of slavery in such a personal way, as an actor in costume.
Edwin Cooke, an interpreter with more than 20 years experience, reflected on a time at Carter’s Grove Plantation when the foundation still owned it.
Among a group of visiting donors, one man joked about buying Cooke and putting him to work building a cabinet.
Cooke admitted he isn’t much of a handyman, and said as much to allow the donor an out, but the donor persisted. It took patience and tact on Cooke’s part to handle the donor’s comments.
“It’s best to be calm, not to get angry but to be tactful and remind him he was being inappropriate,” Cooke said. “Eventually, his wife told him to shut up. I was grateful to the wife.”
Other times a black interpreter can be invisible to guests.
“More often than not, someone will come into our yard and the person will ask one of my white coworkers the question they wanted to ask about the yard, completely walking past me, also working in the yard,” said Ayinde Martin, who has almost 30 years of experience as an interpreter and is a tradesman.
When Martin brought this to the attention of a coworker, the coworker was initially upset by it, though he came around after Martin noted they were telling a human story, not one specifically of carpentry.
“I said, listen, this is about some agency. Allow me to tell that story, too. Because both of us are going to be on this site, 18th century or 21st century, doing the same job with the same amount of information and the same amount of skills,” he said.
But there are also moments where the interpreters illuminate the perspectives of visitors, which time and again is a rewarding accomplishment.
Erikka Clarke recalled a conversation with a guest in the George Wythe House about the property’s garden.
“That garden out there? Mr. Wythe is not out there tending to that garden,” she told the visitor, and segued into the various skilled trades enslaved blacks practiced and how they established and maintained Colonial-era Williamsburg. It set off a light-bulb moment.
“This woman just looks at me and goes ‘Oh my gosh, wow. That means that over half the population built this city from the ground up,’ ” Clarke said.
The story of enslaved African Americans is part of the shared history of all people in the United States. Amid the fires of the Revolutionary War, white and black, free and enslaved people had to make choices in complex and uncertain times. That reality has a uniting effect, and one that enhances the perspective of guests interpreter Linwood Tyson said.
“This is that American story, this is that story that ties us together. That walk back in time … what would you do if you were here? Would you surrender your wealth? Would you step into the unknown? Or would you take an opportunity for freedom? Nobody is offering you freedom. What choices are you going to make?,” he said.
Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, firstname.lastname@example.org, @jajacobs_