Slavery at Williamsburg and Jamestown and Nomini Hall

Back in the 1970s, with the rise of American social history, Colonial Williamsburg was often criticized for its neglect of slaves and free African-Americans in their programs. The criticism was a legitimate one. Williamsburg was, after all, the capital of a slave state. With that many Virginia gentry wandering around the town on a regular basis between 1699 and 1780 how could slaves be ignored?

When Colonial Williamsburg was established in the 1930s the small number of African-American re-enactors were kept in segregated dormitories. In the 1950s Black visitors to the park were only permitted into the town one day a week and could not eat or shop there. Many had a difficult time finding accomodations in the town.

As I toured Colonial Williamsburg this past weekend, I realized that a lot has changed. We did see many slave and free-black re-enactors and there were several programs on slavery and black life in the town. My favorite was the program involving African-American Baptist preacher Gowan Pamphlet. (See picture above). The re-enactor who played Pamphlet was excellent and his conversation with a local militia member and a white Baptist preacher (James Ireland) brought to life the African-American Baptist response to the Anglican Church in Virginia and the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

There could probably be more of a Black presence here (for example, we did not see many slave re-enactors in places like the capitol building or the governor’s palace), but it did seem clear that CW has been working hard at addressing some of these longstanding criticisms.

At Jamestown (both the Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne) slavery is covered in the introductory movie shown to all visitors. One of the movies touches upon the history of Angela, an Angolan woman who was part of the first boat load of Africans that arrived in Jamestown in 1619. (The movies were also careful to point out that it was unclear whether or not these original Africans were slaves or servants). The theme in both of these movies was multiculturalism–the blending of European, native American, and African cultures to form what would later become the United States. The interpreters and historians at Jamestown have certainly taken their cue from the most recent scholarship in early American history, especially Alan Taylor’s excellent introduction, American Colonies.

My only gripe with these movies was the way that they left the viewer believing that Virginia had become a slave society in 1619, the year when this first shipment of Africans arrived. In fact, much of the labor in Virginia was performed by white indentured servants until the 1680s. As a history teacher who tries to get my students to think about the development of slavery over time, the movie enforced the common stereotype that Virginia relied on slave labor from the beginning. (Or at least from 1619).

Of course Virginia was a slave society by the time Philip Vickers Fithian arrived at Robert Carter’s Nomini Hall plantation in 1773. As I argue in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, Fithian was less appalled with the institution of slavery (his Uncle Samuel and many friends owned slaves in southern New Jersey) than he was the way in which Virginia plantation owners treated their slaves.

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