Slavery in Williamsburg

Slavery in Williamsburg

By 1940, the foundation was employing African Americans to represent slaves. They dressed the part but did not pretend to be colonial-era people. Through the '50s, the costumed employees lived in segregated dorms, and black visitors had only one designated day a week to tour the historic area.

In the '60s, critics began to complain about Williamsburg's emphasis on rich white men, noting as late as 1976 the "almost total absence of any reference to slavery," in one visitor's words. Historian Anders Greenspan refers to this period as Williamsburg's transition from monument to educational institution.

In 1979, Colonial Williamsburg hired three black interpreters, including Rex Ellis, who went on to develop the African American studies program at Colonial Williamsburg and today is director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

As our culture learns more and thinks differently about the past, Williamsburg has grown with us, struggling, as it must, to follow both historical accuracy and financial viability.

Bill Weldon, the foundation's manager of public history development, says the mission is "that people be provoked to think about citizenship."

Since 2006, that enterprise has taken a turn for the theatrical, with 40 actor-interpreters representing real historical people from the town. The characters participate in scripted scenes, extended monologues and extemporaneous conversation with visitors. This street-theater reimagining of Williamsburg is called Revolutionary City.

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