Colonial Williamsburg commemorates story of city's enslaved inhabitants

Staff writer

When you walk into the exhibition space of Colonial Williamsburg’s “Revealing the Priceless,” the first thing you notice is the writing on the wall.

There are 1,800 names written on the walls for 1,800 enslaved African Americans identified as living in Williamsburg from 1763 to 1785, which is the period Colonial Williamsburg focuses its programming on.

“Each one was an individual person,” said Stephen Seals, manager for African American and religion interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg, during a media tour Friday. “By saying their names, that’s how we remember them.”

Among the names are Jemmy and Ned, Sarah and Caesar. An ambient soundtrack drifts through the room, giving literal voice to the journey of African Americans — from children playing in Africa, to warfare and capture, from the journey to America and enslavement, to the freedom gained after the Civil War to the modern era.

The stories of those enslaved people, and the work done to tell their stories, come to the fore in Colonial Williamsburg’s program “Revealing the Priceless: 40 Years of African-American Interpretation,” which opens Monday.

The exhibition takes place inside the Daphne and Billiards rooms of Raleigh Tavern. The exhibition also highlights the work of interpreters, historians, archaeologists, curators and community members who have helped tell the story of Williamsburg’s black population, Seals said.

It’s a simple, contemplative exhibit. Alongside the names of the enslaved people, there are plaques and photographs that chronicle Colonial Williamsburg’s efforts to tell the story of African Americans.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of African-American historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg. In 1979, a group of Hampton University students were hired to portray African American characters in Colonial Williamsburg programming, ushering in historical programming about the lives of African Americans. In the decades prior to that change, black costumed employees were either guides or unnamed servants.

At the center of the exhibition is a cluster of chairs around a TV screen that plays a loop of the mock slave auction held by Colonial Williamsburg in 1994. The event attracted national attention and was met with protests led by the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“We’ve been wanting to find a way to bring this to the public for years,” Seals said. “It’s an auction of property and slaves. They auction off the slaves almost exactly the same way they auction off the property. That’s what makes it so powerful, the banality of it.”

Sharon Dorsey saw it firsthand.

Dorsey, the foundation’s executive director of human resources and diversity and inclusion, said it was an emotional event for herself and the people around her.

“It was very controversial,” Dorsey said. “It brought back some childhood memories of things I experienced as a young person moving from segregation to integration and thinking that was a challenge and then saying ‘wow, look at the folks before me, what they endured.’ ”

Colonial Williamsburg historian Kelly Arehart helped create the exhibition, and said it seeks to show visitors a full picture — including historical context and behind-the-scenes work — of the effort needed to tell the African American story.

“It was telling the big picture and making it clear to our guests — many of whom are white — just how dynamic and interesting telling the African American story is,” she said.

Want to go?

When: Feb. 18 to Dec. 31

Where: Raleigh Tavern, Colonial Williamsburg

Cost: Entry to the exhibition is free with admission to Colonial Williamsburg

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

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