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October 22, 2010

Equiano Forum Confronts Historical Myths of African American Literacy, Education Oct. 29-30

Colonial Williamsburg’s 2010 Equiano Forum on Early African American History and Culture: Confronting Historical Myths of African American Literacy, will shed light on the popular belief that “all slaves were forbidden to read and write.” The discussion will examine how prevalent literacy was among slaves and free blacks in early American history. How did literate slaves and free blacks use reading and writing through letters, petitions, poetry, books and pamphlets to pursue freedom, equality and citizenship?

On Friday, Oct. 29, take a special feature tour, — “Johnny…can read and write tolerably well: Peyton Randolph House Tour,” from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Discover the story of Johnny Randolph, an enslaved man who could “read and write tolerably well.” Johnny was the manservant of the late Speaker of the House, Peyton Randolph. How did Johnny use his skills of reading and writing to “endeavor to pass as a freeman?” From forging passes to changing names and identities, literate fugitive slaves found an escape from bondage to enjoy the limited liberties in free black communities. This tour is included in all Historic Area admission passes.

On Saturday, Oct. 30 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. the program, “Johnny…can read and write tolerably well,” is presented at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum’s Hennage Auditorium. Historians and historic interpreters discuss diverse perspectives on African American literacy and education in 18th-century Virginia. The program also will focus on a school for enslaved and free African American children in Williamsburg, the Bray School (1760-1774). The session will conclude with the participants convening for a lively panel discussion with the audience.
Speakers and actor/interpreters include:

  • Colonial Williamsburg historian Linda Rowe will address the means by which African Americans acquired literacy and how blacks and whites viewed the purposes and results of education differently in colonial Virginia.
  • Terry Meyers, chancellor professor of English at the College of William and Mary, will discuss the connections between the College of William and Mary and the Bray School.
  • Johnny Randolph, portrayed by Willie Wright, is an enslaved manservant who can read and write, secretly prepares his escape.
  • Anne Wager, portrayed by Antoinette Brennan, is the schoolmistress of the Bray School who taught enslaved and free African American children to read, write and recite the Church of England catechism. She will discuss her concern about the future of education for African American children.
  • John Ashby, an adult free black, portrayed by Art Johnson, will reflect on his education at the Bray School. How important was education for free blacks?

    In the afternoon session from 2-4:30 p.m., “Adam…pretends to be a Newlight (preacher),” historians, ministers and actor/interpreters will explore how literacy and religion empowered early African American churches and communities. The forum also will examine how Africans were perceived when they exhibited higher levels of literacy, such as the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley or the writings of Olaudah Equiano. This session will bring contemporary perspectives on the legacy of African American literacy. The session will conclude with the participants convening for a lively panel discussion with the audience.

    Speakers and actor/interpreters include:

  • Hermine Pinson, professor of English at the College of William and Mary, and poet, will recite selected Phyllis Wheatley poetry and contemporary poetry, and reflects on the historical literary tradition of African Americans. Pinson will also examine the writings of London’s African abolitionist and author, Olaudah Equiano.
  • Pastor Morris Henderson of the 31st Street Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., will provide a broad historical and contemporary perspective on the importance of literacy and religion in the African and African American history.
  • Gowan Pamphlet, portrayed by James Ingram, founder of the First Baptist Church, will shed light on the empowering nature of literacy and religion on African Americans. Gowan shares the challenges of preparing his church for recognition by the Dover Baptist Association.
  • The Rev. Mr. John Camm, portrayed by Stephen Moore, will share the Church of England’s mission to provide literacy and religious instruction to enslaved people.

    No ticket is required to attend the Equiano Forum at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum but free reservations are required and can be made at 1-800-HISTORY or at any Colonial Williamsburg ticket outlet.

    Archaeological objects, books and other items relating to the history of African American literacy, education and religion will be displayed in the lobby of the Hennage Auditorium from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2-4:30 p.m.

    Each day from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., view the African American Religion Exhibit located in a carriage house on Nassau Street near the site where the African American First Baptist Church met in the early 1800s. The exhibit traces the story of the late 18th-century African American Baptist congregation in Williamsburg, under the leadership of Gowan Pamphlet.

    Programs and exhibitions at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum are supported by the DeWitt Wallace Endowment Fund.

    The Equiano Forum on Early African American History and Culture is a program for historic and contemporary discourse which incorporates scholars, educators and performers to broaden public knowledge about African and African American history and culture in Virginia and the Atlantic world.

    The Equiano Forum is named in honor of Gustavus Vassa, otherwise known as Olaudah Equiano. Equiano was an African enslaved in the Caribbean and Virginia. He eventually purchased his own freedom and later wrote and published his autobiography while living in London. His autobiography, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” is recognized as one of the earliest works written in English by a former slave. This important literary work is considered to be the catalyst of a new literary genre, the slave narrative. While living in London, Equiano was an outspoken and tireless abolitionist. Equiano’s ability to vividly express the horrors of the institution of slavery in the Americas was unparalleled. His masterful prose articulated the desire of Africans and African Americans to live free and equal in 18th-century Atlantic world community.

    Colonial Williamsburg’s African American programming has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Mr. and Mrs. Richard D. Parsons, Douglas N. Morton and Marilyn L. Brown, the Norfolk Southern Corporation, the Charles E. Culpeper Endowments in Arts and Culture of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Altria Client Services, AT&T, Philip Morris and IBM.

    The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational and cultural organization dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and presentation of the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia. This town-sized living history museum tells the inspirational stories of our journey to become Americans through programs in the Historic Area and through the award-winning Revolutionary City program.

    Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s website at

    Media Contact:
    Penna Rogers
    (757) 220-7121

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