Saturday, December 2, 2023

Traditional storytelling at Freedom Park brings African American history to life

The Virginia Black Storytellers have been teaching residents about local history surrounding Freedom Park since 2011. (Photo courtesy of James City County)
The Virginia Black Storytellers have been teaching residents about local history surrounding Freedom Park since 2011. (Photo courtesy of James City County)

James City County Parks and Recreation is offering locals the chance to hear tales of the past from a different perspective.

On June 22 at 3  p.m., JCC Parks and Rec will host Freedom Stories at Freedom Park, where locals can come out and hear African and African American stories. It’s free and open to the public but children must be accompanied by an adult. If there is inclement weather, call the county’s Activities Hotline at 757-259-3232 to learn about any changes to the event.

Joy Johnson, special events program coordinator for James City County, said what makes the event so special is that the Free Black Settlement Area at Freedom Park is used as the background. The Free Black Settlement is one of the nation’s earliest settlements, operating from 1803 to 1850. To represent this history, the park has three replication cabins historically-accurate to the period, according to the James City County Website.

RELATED STORY: Storytelling highlights history inside Freedom Park

“Many people still don’t know that the cabins are there to explore,” Johnson said. “This event creates the opportunity for citizens to come out to hear stories, but also learn a little history as well.”

Dylan Pritchett, a Williamsburg native, will be one of the presenters from Virginia Black Storytellers.

“Storytelling is an art,” he said. “I’ve been a professional storyteller since 1990, and the best part is using the stories as a hook. If your audience can feel the humanity in a story, then they can connect with it.”

Pritchett is one of the original creators of the program which started in 2011. He said previously there had been an African American expo event held annually in Williamsburg. But after the expo ended, Pritchett said he approached Johnson and the county with another idea to educate residents on local African American history.

Pritchett and other members of the Virginia Black Storytellers use their craft to highlight parts of history that might otherwise be overlooked.

“I guess it comes from being around many different sites and seeing similarities for how people survived in the time period,” he said. “[Freedom Park] is going to be different than a Civil War free black settlement. As a storyteller you try to merge all of that together so you can talk about the progression, the freedom, the laws, the lives.”

When preparing to tell the stories at Freedom Park each year, Pritchett said he has to think about how to tell new stories to old audiences and old stories to new audiences. Instead of telling stories about specific people, he tries to find general topics that represent a microcosm of life at a specific time period.

Pritchett does research to make stories site-specific, such as at Freedom Park. A huge part of what makes history on the park so interesting and accurate is the research already done by Col. Lafayette Jones Jr. whose family lived on the settlement.

RELATED STORY: With roots in America’s earliest free black settlement, resident retraces history with purpose

“It gets people interested in their own family history,” Pritchett said. “It’s important to share our stories of our families, even the bad stories because those are just as important as the good.”

Another unique aspect of the event is that the stories will have guests leaving with a moral and historical lessons learned. Each story is designed to teach listeners about different African Americans that lived on the free settlement and about how they lived, Johnson said.

“Everybody has a story, everyone came from somewhere,” Pritchett said. “But we don’t know some of them because there’s no written record. So we have to rely on oral records, storytelling.”

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

Related Articles