The Word Is ‘Slaves’: A Trip Into Black History


Kate is waiting for us by the kitchen garden. Her owner, Benjamin Powell, has warned us that she “often has a case of the grumps,” so we approach her cautiously. I am with a class of fourth graders from Nashville, Tennessee, and together we are taking a trip back to 1770, the year at which time has stopped in Colonial Williamsburg. Despite the difference in our ages, the children and I have things in common: we are white, and we have never met a slave before.

In her long gingham dress and wide-brimmed straw hat, Kate is a handsome sight, her eyes alert and friendly, but there is a dignity and reserve about her that are enough to cow the children into silence.

“What can I do for you all?” she finally asks in a soft but impatient voice. “I am not in the habit of speaking unless spoken to, but I am direct.”

The questions come slowly, and Kate’s story emerges between long pauses: she was born on Nathaniel Burwell’s plantation and has two children. When a child asks if she would like to go North, she asks in reply, “Why? It is cold in the North.”

In Selma, Alabama, walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge has become a must for tourists.

“To be free,” the child persists.

“There is no freedom in the North,” Kate says.

The child looks puzzled; obviously he doesn’t understand that slavery existed in all the colonies in pre-Revolutionary America, and the format of the first-person presentation doesn’t permit a fuller explanation.

I begin to wonder what the children are thinking. Kate’s performance is so good that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this is role playing, not reality. Kate is asked again where she was born, and there is a flash of the grumpiness we heard about. “Let us not repeat ourselves.” But only once does she show irritation—when a male teacher hesitatingly tries to pose a question about “the people, you know, who work here with you.”

Kate stares at the man for several hard, uncomfortable seconds before she answers. “The word,” she says, “is slaves.”

Interpreting slavery is difficult,” said Robert Watson when I asked him about Kate’s answer, “difficult for interpreters and difficult for some visitors, because it makes them uncomfortable. But it is a story that must be told—in its entirety.”

Watson is director of Colonial Williamsburg’s Department of African-American Interpretation and Presentations. Slavery came late to Colonial Williamsburg, which has been interpreting American pre-Revolutionary history in a mostly nostalgic way ever since John D. Rockefeller began restoring the town in 1926. Until 1987, when Rex Ellis, then assistant director of the program, and two other black actors took to the streets, playing such roles as Nioto, a recently arrived African, and Gowan Pamphlet, a black minister, there was virtually no black presence in the Williamsburg program. When slaves were referred to at all, the white guides called them “servants.”

Today there are fifteen black interpreters in the department, hardly enough to bring their numbers up to historic proportions, for as any one of them will tell you, Williamsburg in 1770 was half-black. “Look up and down this street,” Art Johnson, a black interpreter, told an all-white tour group I had joined, “and tell me what is wrong with this picture.” When nobody replied, Johnson answered for us: “You don’t see any black folk.”

Watson estimates that blacks make up less than 5 percent of the visitors to Colonial Williamsburg. Still, he says, the African-American interpretation program has attracted black visitors and school groups that never would have come before. The attitude among most blacks used to be, “Why should I go to Williamsburg? There’s nothing there for me.”

Until very recently American history for most blacks started with the Emancipation Proclamation; slavery as a subject was best forgotten or ignored. Even black employees on the Williamsburg staff were once against introducing it into the interpretive program; an early attempt to place a tape recording about slavery in a building was continually sabotaged—by the black maintenance staff.

Then, in 1976, came Roots, the author Alex Haley’s account of his search for his ancestral past in Africa and American slavery. The book changed the prevailing attitude of blacks toward slavery. Now they are more likely to view the period positively—as a triumph over adversity, or as evidence of “our determination to survive through hard times,” to quote from a mural on the ground floor of the Harriet Tubman Museum and Cultural Center, in Macon, Georgia.