Saturday, September 23, 2023

Colonial Williamsburg celebrates 40 years of African-American interpreters

It’s been 40 years since the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation first started African-American historical interpretation and they’re taking a whole year to celebrate.

Colonial Williamsburg first opened as a public site in 1932 and eventually became a presence in the world of American Revolutionary history, according to a news release from the foundation. The American Revolution covers a time period when more than half of Williamsburg’s city were African-Americans. Nearly all of them slaves.

Before 1979, African-American employees at Colonial Williamsburg worked as interpreters throughout the historic area, but only portrayed anonymous servants.

“Interpretation avoided aspects of their lives that risked pain or even discomfort for employees, guests and members of the community, regardless of race,” according to the news release.

But African-American interpretation changed 40 years ago when the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation recruited students from Hampton University as the first interpreters to attempt to engage visitors as African-American characters.

“There was no textbook, no script. Yet a small group accepted the challenge and stepped onto the streets of the Historic Area to face an uncertain reception from guests, neighbors and colleagues,” the release said.

Their work can be seen today in current Colonial Williamsburg interpreters and through interpretive programs such as “Journey to Redemption,” and “Resolved, An American Experiment.”

“A forward-looking group of individuals wanted to tell the story of all who lived in Williamsburg in the 18th century, and they saw where the future of interpretation would take us,” said Colonial Williamsburg actor-interpreter Stephen Seals, program manager for the 40th anniversary commemoration.

The foundation plans a year filled with community conversations, special exhibitions and new programming to spotlight the African-American women and men colonial-era Williamsburg.

The first event will be on Jan. 6 with a feature screening of the documentary “Traces of Trade.” On Jan. 13, there will be another screening of the documentary “13th.” The screening will be followed by a panel discussion about the documentary on Jan. 20.

All of those events will be at 2:30 p.m. in the Lane Auditorium in Colonial Williamsburg’s Bruton Heights School.

As an annual tradition, Colonial Williamsburg with celebrate Black History Month in February by showcasing the best of its year-round African-American interpretive programming all month, including “My Story: My Voice,” “Joy in the Morning,” “Freedom’s Paradox,” and “Music was My Refuge.”

There will also be a special exhibition beginning in February at the Raleigh Tavern. “Revealing the Priceless: Colonial Williamsburg – 40 years of African-American Interpretation” will memorialize the names of each African-American woman and man known to have lived in Williamsburg from 1763 to 1785.

Three special community conversation events will take place later in the year. The conversations are designed to examine the past, present and future of African-American historical interpretation.

The events will be at 5:30 p.m. on May 10, July 5, and Oct. 18 at the Hennage Auditorium at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.

For more information visit Colonial Williamsburg online.

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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