Colonial Williamsburg, one of the most important sites for historical re-enactment in the United States, is increasingly stressing diversity issues in its historical interpretations of colonial American society.
The community of Williamsburg, Virginia, has been promoting building restoration and living history since the 1930s, and the colonial town and re-enactment site is managed by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. The Foundation’s historical interpretations of eighteenth-century life has evolved significantly over the decades, responding to new research, historiographical approaches, and social concerns.
African-American slaves formed the majority of colonial Williamsburg’s population, but slavery was not a focal point of re-enactments until relatively recently. African-American History, Women and Gender History, Atlantic World History, History of Slavery, and Early Modern World History seem to have transformed the historical approaches at Williamsburg.
The Washington Post reports on historical re-enactment at Williamsburg, focusing particularly on re-enactors (or interpreters) who now take on roles that represent the diversity of colonial Virginia.
“Stephen Seals, who heads community outreach and program development, plays James Lafayette, an enslaved Williamsburg man who served in the Continental Army under the Marquis de Lafayette. A longtime actor, Seals is a kind of archive unto himself, his psychic shelves stocked with knowledge about Colonial Williamsburg’s evolution. At one time, … the foundation did emphasize the working trades of the period. Those carpentry and gunsmithing shops are still popular, but there’s been an ever-evolving effort to reveal all facets of the community’s past.”
Another important part of the colonial community of Williamsburg were Free Blacks. “On the streets of Colonial Williamsburg — one of the world’s premier living-history museums — Emily James cuts a formidable figure. Portraying Edith Cumbo, a free woman of color who walked these byways in the 18th century, James tries daily to convey to tourists the humiliations and contradictions Cumbo lived with,” according to The Washington Post.
Theatrical presentations and plays complement the re-enactors’ character interpretations. Some of the new plays present diversity in gender and sexuality, including same-sex relationships.
I remember visiting Colonial Williamsburg in the 1980s and being captivated by the “feel” of eighteenth-century society. The historical buildings, costumes, horse-drawn carriages, and workshops allow visitors to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of premodern life. But, any encounters with the institution of slavery and the diverse people in Williamsburg society were limited at that time. I hope to visit Colonial Williamsburg again to observe the transformations of its historical re-enactment program.
The Washington Post reports on “Colonial Williamsburg Gets Real.”