Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Blacksmith’s Demonstration to Celebrate African American Influence on Iron and Steel Working

(The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

WILLIAMSBURG — Colonial Williamsburg will welcome Blacksmith Darryl Reeves, a third-generation metal worker and owner of Andrew’s Welding & Blacksmith Shop in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, for talks and demonstrations as part of its Juneteenth programming.

Reeves will be at the Public Armory from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, June 19.

In addition to contemporary furniture and decorative art creations, Reeves is the most celebrated architectural blacksmith in the Gulf South, according to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, renowned for his meticulous, historically accurate wrought iron restorations of antique fences, gates, balcony railings, and window grilles in the French Quarter and beyond.

Reeves began his career as a welder out of high school in 1968. He said by the late 1970s, he saw a market for blacksmithing because no one was doing the trade right.

“I never really took it serious until a lady told me how much she’ll pay for a strap hinge. And that was the beginning. I started doing hardware as a side hustle to subsidize my income,” Reeves explained.

With his kids in school, he would take them to the library. While they did their work, if a customer had something they wanted made, he would read up on it in old books he could find at the library.

(The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

“I did that through the ’80s, and by the end of the ’80s I was making more money on my side hustle than what I was making on my regular jobs,” he said, noting he was primarily self-taught, not meeting another true blacksmith until he opened his own shop.

Over time, Reeves began collecting books on blacksmithing, purchasing whatever he could find until he built up a collection of knowledge. Today, Reeves is passing along the knowledge, skills and traditions of New Orleans’ 18th- and 19th-century African American ironworkers to a new generation of apprentices through the New Orleans Master Crafts Guild.

For Ken Schwarz, Master Blacksmith at Colonial Williamsburg, meeting Reeves was akin to his journey with blacksmithing coming full circle.

“Darryl and his crew do the demonstration for the Jazz and Heritage Festival. When I lived down there. The first time I’d ever seen a blacksmith working was at the Jazz and Heritage Festival,” Schwarz explained. “I was probably 14 years old … there’s a million things going on there. But when we walked in the gate and I saw this blacksmith, I was absolutely mesmerized … I stood there the entire day watching the blacksmith.”

“I’m hoping next year we can work it out that I go back full circle and probably 50 years after my experience there, participate in the demonstration,” he added.

Schwartz has been a blacksmith for 46 years, 40 with Colonial Williamsburg. He began developing an interest in the history of African American ironworking so prevalent in places like New Orleans and Charleston. Noting that the work was prominent in West Africa, where many of the slaves brought to Williamsburg came from, he realized that it was also an intricate part of the Williamsburg story that needed to be told.

One of Schwartz’s colleagues had taken a class through Harvard that highlighted Reeves’s work, and Schwartz reached out. The pair met when Schwartz traveled to New Orleans for a family function.

“We got together one day when I was down there. I think we spent five hours, me and Darryl and his staff talking about these sorts of issues. And at the end of it, I said, essentially ‘Hey, what are you doing June 19?'” Schwartz said.

(The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

For Reeves, the opportunity to come to Colonial Williamsburg is perfect timing. He has no desire to retire because he loves the work. But to be able to give demonstrations and pass along the knowledge appeals to him.

Schwartz also sees an opportunity for apprentice exchanges, giving them experience in both the nonprofit world of Colonial Williamsburg and the for-profit world of Reeve’s shop. “That’s what excites me about this whole thing is building this partnership that hopefully that we can work together for years to come, not just this weekend.”

But most important for Schwartz, the Juneteenth program is an opportunity to both recognize and celebrate the African American influence on the art of iron and steel working in the United States. Reeves agrees.

“Because it’s large. I mean it’s very large. A lot of people like to overlook it,” Reeves explained. “I have a real problem with history, because they need to teach history — true American history. Stop censoring it, because that’s all they’re doing is censoring our history in school. My own culture is learned out of school, and I feel that we won’t have as much problems as we have today if everybody could feel pride in themselves.”

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