The Virginia Gazette is running an informative piece on interpreting the African-American experience at Colonial Williamsburg. Here is a taste:
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.