Thomas Jefferson interpreter reflects on years of service at Colonial Williamsburg

Staff writer

Thomas Jefferson has been more than a role for Colonial Williamsburg actor-interpreter Bill Barker. The Founding Father has been a lifelong passion and source of inspiration.

Williamsburg looms large in the third president’s life: it was here he studied at the College of William and Mary and served as the state’s governor before the capital moved to Richmond during his administration.

The city also looms large in Barker’s life: it’s here that he has devoted himself to educating others as Jefferson for 26 years. His tenure ends in June, when he will move on to portray Jefferson at Monticello.

“I’ve felt very much at home here since the very beginning,” Barker said in a recent interview.

“As you read him, you’re pulled into him,” Barker said of his lifelong interest in Jefferson. “He’s extremely receptive, conversational in writing, provocative, throwing out things that make you think.”

As a historical actor-interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, Barker interacts with guests at the living-history museum to bring one of America’s most prominent leaders to life.

His work combines scholarship with theater performance, and explores the relationship between the modern world and Jefferson’s world. As Jefferson, Barker has performed at the White House, Palace of Versailles and in nearly every state. He has been featured in “People,” “Time” and “Southern Living,” as well as on ABC, CNN and PBS, according to a Colonial Williamsburg news release.

Becoming Jefferson

The seeds of Barker’s story were planted when he was young, thanks to his parents’ love of history.

“I was just fortunate to have parents who were fascinated and innately interested in history and shared that with their children,” he said.

Barker was born in Philadelphia, which, like Williamsburg, has deep historical roots in America’s founding. That environment, as well as frequent trips to the circa-1760s farm his father grew up on in North Carolina, meant history was a constant in Barker’s life. Bouncing between the two areas meant frequent stops at Williamsburg and Monticello.

In college, Barker was passionate about two subjects — theater and history, particularly Jefferson.

Jefferson got Barker fired once. Barker recalled an incident where his inability to keep his nose out of a biography about Jefferson earned him a pink slip while working as a store clerk during his college years.

“I remember I was reading (“Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History”). I presided over summer furniture and there was no business,” Barker said. “I was told ‘cut it out, get busy.’ The third time was the charm. They caught me and said ‘get out of here.’”

He was also an actor.

“I could not stay off the stage from the earliest time. I was just fascinated with theater and I was in several shows a year all through college,” he said.

Those two passions would come together when a friend of Barker’s, a fourth-grade history teacher, noted Barker’s resemblance to Jefferson. Between his looks, skills and knowledge of Jefferson, he would make a good fit for an open position at Independence Hall for a Jefferson re-enactor for photo-ops and celebrations.

Barker began working at Independence Hall as Jefferson in 1984. He also made an appearance in character for his friend’s students.

Colonial Williamsburg

In 1993, Barker joined Colonial Williamsburg as a Jefferson historical-interpreter to take part in summer programming. That position turned into a full-time gig. Since then, Barker has seen plenty of change on the streets where Jefferson once walked, both in terms of his own work and the work of the museum itself.

Over the years, interpreting Jefferson has become more nuanced and integrated with the stories of others during the Colonial era, such as enslaved blacks.

“It’s evolved more into the meat of the matter. More into his words and his context, which is so beautifully fulfilled with the environment. Walking the same streets, looking at these same buildings,” he said. “The amount of letters he provides us in his early life, during the 20 years he was here, brings Williamsburg alive.”

Barker’s ascension to full-time Founding Father heralded a new era for Colonial Williamsburg. Gone were the days of special appearances of noteworthy historical figures to commemorate anniversaries or celebrations. Instead, Colonial Williamsburg began to introduce actors dedicated to historically significant figures.

Colonial Williamsburg now has a cohort of experienced actor-interpreters in the Nation Builder program, which is comprised of individuals who portray historical figures connected to 18th-century Williamsburg and who made important contributions to American history.

Many of the significant players in early America were upper-class men who owned slaves. A more concentrated effort to incorporate the black experience into programming started in 1979, which paved the way for a more nuanced look at men such as the slave-owning Jefferson, as Barker interacted with colleagues who portrayed enslaved people.

“The conversation became a lot more engaging, provocative and profound. We found this was what people wanted to hear,” Barker said.

Barker has been pleased to watch archaeology become a more prominent part of how Colonial Williamsburg not only learns about the past, but teaches it, specifically in regards to children-oriented dig activities. No doubt, Jefferson, himself an archeologist and proponent of education, would find some pleasure in that as well.

Successive presidential elections have also been a highlight of Barker’s time at Colonial Williamsburg. There’s a steady rhythm to the questions guests pose. So much so that Barker can close his eyes, hear the questions and determine whether its an election year or not.

The questions that challenge Americans today — issues such as balance of power between executive and legislative branches of federal government and the power and influence of the press — also challenged Americans in the country’s earliest days.

Division is also a longstanding part of American political life. The only difference is that instead of Federalists and anti-Federalists, there are Democrats and Republicans.

“Colonial Williamsburg helps all of us understand that this has always been a part of who we are,“ he said.

Return to Monticello

Barker will continue to portray Jefferson at Colonial Williamsburg through June 7; he will make his first public appearance at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello June 14.

“Bill’s knowledge, experience and passion for his subject are unparalleled. We are proud that he will bring Thomas Jefferson home to enliven and deepen the experience of our visitors with Jefferson’s immense contributions to the new nation,” Monticello President Leslie Greene Bowman said in a news release. “He will also assist us in conveying an honest, complicated and inclusive history of freedom and slavery at Monticello.”

In some ways, the move to Monticello mirrors Jefferson’s own trajectory. After finishing his presidency in 1809, Jefferson returned to Monticello ready to continue his work in education and Enlightenment thinking, Barker said.

“He’s entering, essentially as I am, the last third of his life and he’s not quitting,” Barker said.

It’s a fitting move for a man dedicated to one of the giants of American history. Barker’s own work will consist of furthering our understanding of a complex and vital member of the Revolutionary generation.

“I’m looking forward to fleshing it out even more. I’m looking forward to engaging the mindset of an individual after 40 years of public service, saying ‘I’m not done yet.’”

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

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