African-American experiences haven't traditionally had a prominent place in early American history

Staff writer

It was about 10 years ago that Stephen Seals first portrayed a slave at Colonial Williamsburg.

The program: “What Holds the Future?” The role: George, an enslaved man up who was, until recently, owned by Lord Dunmore.

Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, had just been run out of the state by rebellious colonists. The colonists decided to auction off Dunmore’s abandoned possessions – including his slaves.

The program picked up on the eve of the auction, and dealt with the feelings of Dunmore’s slaves as they wrestled with what the impending auction would mean for the families and relationships that bonded the royal governor’s slaves.

It’s a difficult story, but one that’s worth telling because, for the most part, the stories of enslaved people aren’t well known.

“I learned very quickly that not only is it a duty, but it’s an honor. It’s an honor to tell these stories. I’m giving voice to people who for centuries have been voiceless,” Seals said.

In the past decade, Seals, who is an actor-interpreter and manager for African American and religion interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg, has portrayed slaves and free black soldiers. He now plays the role of James Armistead Lafayette, a slave who served the Continental Army as a spy.

The presence of black people, both as storytellers and stories in the region’s museums, has traditionally been sporadic or incomplete — Colonial Williamsburg had costumed black employees almost from the outset, yet no specific programming until late in the 20th century. There was little sense of where the first Africans, who arrived in Virginia in 1619, came from or how they arrived in North America until the 1990s.

African Americans and their experiences have traditionally been a quiet section in the larger symphony of early American history. This year, African-American history looks to crescendo, given the prominence of African Americans in the 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution and the 40th anniversary of African American historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg in 2019. Both events feature numerous programs and activities centered on the experiences of African Americans in 17th and 18th century America.

Early historical interpretation

Established in 1926, Colonial Williamsburg opened its first public site in 1932. Though African-American interpretation wouldn’t start in earnest as a fleshed out component of the living history museum until 1979, there had long been an African American presence at Colonial Williamsburg.

“Despite being here for 91 years, we’ve pretty much always had black interpreters,” Seals said.

Black Americans portrayed anonymous servants or costumed guides.

It took a few decades before they were seen as potential points of focus rather than background players in programming, said Seals.

In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers started to discover more information about African Americans in Revolutionary-era Williamsburg. They learned half of the city’s inhabitants were enslaved black people in the 18th century.

That prompted some questions: How were African Americans half the city’s population, yet their stories were essentially untold? Colonial Williamsburg embarked on an effort to determine how to tell those stories, hitting on the idea that a social-history perspective would be the best way to do it.

“When they made that choice, that started everything,” Seals said. “That’s when programming really changed.”

Forty years ago, a group of Hampton University students were recruited to work as first-person interpreters portraying African Americans known to live and work in Williamsburg during the late 1700s.

Over the years, Colonial Williamsburg tried different programs and methods. Given that slavery is a large component of the black experience in America, it was a necessary but challenging task to navigate the emotions that can be stirred by a reprehensible chapter in American history — for both interpreters and visitors.

There’s a personal toll to portraying a slave; it’s uncomfortable philosophically and emotionally, and it can be potentially awkward.

“It is really hard to look at the worst parts of human beings, of the systems that we set up,” Seals said. “To have to interpret that every single day with my friends, who sometimes have to play my owners. We have to have a lot of trust.

“It chips away at you because you have to show it honestly. And if you’re showing it honestly, there’s a certain amount of inhumanity that was a part of this and you have to show it. But in showing it, you’re really putting yourself out there.”

There’s also uncomfortable interactions with visitors.

“I can tell stories about unfortunate things people would say to me on the street,” Seals said. “That’s always been a reality of telling these stories for the last 40 years.”

Colonial Williamsburg held a slave auction program in 1994, where interpreters portrayed enslaved men and women being sold after the death of their owner. The event was met with protests led by the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference, according to a Daily Press report.

There are more mundane challenges in describing the African-American experience, too.

Since slaves were not often written about or seldom wrote down their experiences, there are gaps in modern understanding of the lives of the enslaved.

Take the arrival of the first Africans to English North America. A letter by English colonist John Rolfe noted the arrival of about 20 Africans in present-day Hampton in 1619, but beyond the belief that the party was roughly evenly split between men and women, there wasn’t much known about those people for some time, said Anne Price-Hardister, Jamestown Settlement’s on-site education program manager.

“That was really all we knew,” she said.

So for years, Jamestown Settlement’s African exhibitions focused on Angelo, a woman among the original arrivals known to historians, and Mary and Anthony Johnson, a married black couple who were freed in the early 1600s and bought land on the Eastern Shore, alongside information about slavery and indentured servitude.

“We just didn’t know enough to say authoritatively what was happening at that time,” Price-Hardister said.

That changed in 1999.

A breakthrough discovery

A paper was published in William and Mary Quarterly that shed light on the situation.

According to the author, a professor at University of California Berkeley, the first Africans were Angolan. They were aboard a Portuguese slave ship bound for Mexico when it was attacked by English privateers — the ships White Lion and Treasurer — who in turn stole some of the human cargo and brought it to Virginia.

The paper’s publication coincided with a period of renovation at Jamestown Settlement. The year 2007, the 400th anniversary of the establishment of Jamestown, was right around the corner. The museum was well positioned to fully flesh out its exhibitions with the new information.

That’s why the museum’s African exhibits focus on the Angolan culture of the first Africans, a culture that possessed metalworking, tobacco cultivation, a structured society that included nobility, a middle class and slaves.

“We knew a whole lot more about how these people lived and we could really begin to interpret it,” she said. “We made a huge effort to make sure we were explaining that story. We were the first museum to really put that story out there.”

It was a big step forward because while the individuals were mostly unknown, they could be positioned within a culture.

“To understand the experience of the people who arrived here, you have to know those things. You have to know were they came from,” she said.

For example: knowing that the Africans were Angolan, who were probably captured in the midst of warfare between tribes, left open the possibility that some of the captives were noblemen, which added further complexity to their lives as slaves.

In the first African culture, tending to tobacco fields was a task done by women. In Virginia, the first African men found themselves in tobacco fields as white planters pursued the profits the cash crop provided.

“How does that impact them?” she said of the men working at odds with their traditional understanding of gender roles. “I can’t imagine how that would feel.”

The 2019 Commemoration has devoted someresources toward telling the under-told stories of African Americans. The state-wide, year-long event recognizes the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in English North America, among other key events that took place in Virginia that would affect the development of the United States.

Oftentimes there’s history hiding in plain sight.

There are more than 220 historical markers related to African-American history in Virginia, but they aren’t necessarily well known to state residents, said Kathy Spangler, director of the commemoration.

To address that, the commemoration developed a mobile app to make people more aware of those markers. Virginia History Trails allow users to access information from Virginia’s earliest days to the modern era. The app, which launched last May, includes descriptions of more than 400 stories and more than 200 historic places. In addition to African-American topics, the app covers immigration and military history, among other subjects.

“We wanted to bring that to life with digital spaces and the live faces of descendants,” Spangler said.

That, and collaboration with other institutions to help reach new audiences, help state residents learn more about African-American history and how it relates to American history. One such collaboration is a new visitor and education center at Fort Monroe focused on African-American history. A dedication ceremony for the facility is scheduled for August.

“Virginia’s continued exploration of the important role of African Americans is on a trajectory we haven’t seen before,” she said.

About this story

This story is the second 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.

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

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette
66°