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Windsor Fry enlisted in the Rhode Island militia when he was just 16 years old.
He and his regiment would go on to witness several key events of the Revolutionary War, including the siege of Boston, Washington crossing the Delaware and the Battle of Yorktown.
Fry’s adventurous spirit and presence at milestone moments in the American Revolution are what first inspired Jerome Bridges to bring him back to life through historical interpretation.
The result of his interest is a new program about Fry and his time as a member of the Rhode Island Light Infantry, which premiered at Yorktown Battlefield on July 25 and will run through Sept. 5.
The attack by Fry’s company on Redoubt #10, a heavily protected portion of the British defenses at Yorktown, played a major role in the Battle of Yorktown. The capture of the redoubt allowed the Americans to complete their siege line and ultimately expedited General Cornwallis’ surrender.
Bringing the story of this daring initiative to life is Bridges’ current passion project, but he spent years honing his skills as both a researcher and actor to get to this point.
Bridges, who lives in Williamsburg, has been a park ranger and historical interpreter for more than 30 years. He worked for Newport News Park for 32 years, during which he had his first experience with historical interpretation.
Seeing his passion and aptitude for portraying a Civil War-era black soldier, his supervisors at the park encouraged him to develop his skills through workshops and continued practice.
Though Bridges’ main responsibility was still the law enforcement aspect of being a park ranger, he found himself increasingly drawn to the interpretation side.
“I always jumped at the chance to do more interpretation,” Bridges said. “The Civil War earthworks [at Newport News Park] were a great backdrop for bringing those interpretation to life.”
Bridges loved historical interpretation so much that while he was still employed in Newport News he began traveling up to the Historic Triangle to volunteer as a living history tour guide at Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown.
When he retired from Newport News in 2009, Bridges quickly realized he could not shake the desire to continue doing historical interpretation.
“I think I was retired for about three months,” Bridges said, laughing. He decided to increase his volunteer hours with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and later applied for a paid position as soon as one became available.
Bridges’ enthusiasm for researching and portraying historical figures coincided with what he describes as a growing effort by National Park Services to include the stories of a more diverse range of people.
“I love educating people about the little-known facts of history,” Bridges said. “We know all about the generals and the higher-ups, but I’m more interested in the grunts who actually got the work done.”
In addition to enjoying bringing lesser-known stories to light, Bridges also feels a responsibility to give voice to black Americans, whose contributions as important players in the course of U.S. history have often been marginalized and overlooked.
“As an African-American, knowing people from your culture did take a part in important events is very meaningful,” Bridges said. “When African-Americans come to a National Park and see their culture reflected, it means a lot.”
It was his belief in the importance of giving voice to the previously unheard that motivated him to approach Jamestown about his idea to portray Anthony Johnson, who was among the first group of Africans to arrive at Jamestown in 1619.
After completing extensive research, putting together a comprehensive outline and performing a dry run of the show for the head of historical interpretation at Jamestown, Bridges was given the go-ahead to portray the character.
This would be the first of many programs Bridges would develop for Jamestown, Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg. Between those locations, he has portrayed characters in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
His current portrayal of Windsor Fry puts Bridges right back in the time period he loves the most; the Revolutionary War has been a particular point of interest to him ever since his 10th grade English class.
“We were supposed to write a research paper, and the teacher was going around the class asking us what topic we’d like to write on. I said I wanted to write about the role of the black soldier in the Revolutionary War. My teacher gave me a look and said, ‘Well, they were just water boys.’ But she let me write the paper and I got an ‘A’ on it,” Bridges said.
Over the course of 30 years, Bridges went from almost being denied the opportunity to research his passion to winning an award for it. In 2007 the National Organization for Interpretation named him the Volunteer Interpreter of the Year.
As for what makes him such a great interpreter, Bridges suggests that really it is no more than the ability to tell a great story.
“I love telling stories. People sometimes think history is boring, but if you present it like a story, and draw them in, and make them want to know what happens next, you bring the story to life for them,” Bridges said.
Bridges’ passion for telling stories gave him a unique tie to the most modern of all the characters he’s portrayed, Sam Robinson.
Robinson was a groundskeeper at Jamestown in the 1930s who often had the opportunity to listen in on tours happening in the settlement and on the island. Eventually he began to try his hand at telling the stories himself, and he possessed such a flair for it that he became well-known for his take on some of the local legends.
So widespread was his acclaim that when the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II of England visited Jamestown for the 350th anniversary in the late 1950s, she specifically requested to hear Robinson tell his tale of “The Mother-in-Law Tree.” He was among the only black people able to talk to the queen during her visit.
For this reason, Robinson was one of Bridges’ favorite characters to portray and one to whom he felt a deep connection.
Though Bridges is busy with the Windsor Fry program at Yorktown these days, he has still given some thought to who he would like to portray next.
“Thousands of slaves ran away from their masters to join Cornwallis based on his promise of freedom, Bridges said. “When he realized he couldn’t feed all of them and his own troops, he pushed them out and left them to starve in no-man’s-land at Yorktown. When the British lost many of them that hadn’t already died of hunger or disease were imprisoned and returned to their masters. That is an untold story I’d like to tell.”