Whether you’re looking to read up on this topic before joining the conversation, or want some further reading afterward, here’s our recommended reading.
Before you begin, please note this important contextual information provided by our Department of Historical Research and Digital History.
The historical primary sources listed below often include the term “negro,” a common noun used in the 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, and 20th- centuries. “Negro” is rarely used today, except for political purposes and in historical study and programming. While some Black people of the past didn’t identify with the term, it was generally considered a way to identify people of African descent. “Negro” wasn’t inherently a slur, though it could have been used that way. These primary sources preserve the history and integrity of the Black experience by accurately documenting the past. For this reason, you may see this term used often.
In your reading, you may also encounter the “n-word” in some of these sources. The term was rarely used in 18th-century Virginia, but the odious word has been in use since the 19th century. Some of the sources address regions of the South beyond Virginia, and even the whole country, over centuries. The more you delve into the sources, the more likely it is that you will encounter the “n-word.”
Although it may be shocking when encountered, don’t be surprised if you see the term. For many, it can be difficult to study the history of the Black experience after facing the hurt these words can cause; those feelings are normal. And while learning can sometimes be difficult, the knowledge gained is worth the effort.
General Sources on African American History
- Colonial Williamsburg’s Department of African American Interpretations and Presentations published a newsletter that changed the way historical interpreters understood black history. “Broken Chains” was only published for a short while, but it left a significant legacy. Never-before made available to the public, read these documents to learn more. Please note “Broken Chains” includes use of “Negro.”
- One of the best ways to learn about the history of enslavement is consulting online databases. University of Virginia’s “The Geography of Slavery” makes runaway ads from the 18th and 19th centuries available to scholars, genealogists, and the public. The writers of the ads had no way of knowing that the descriptions they gave of the self-liberated would teach future generations about the humanity, skills, and ingenuity of those held in bondage. Please note “The Geography of Slavery” includes the word “Negro.”
- The National Museum of African American History and Culture encourages the reader to do so much more than just visit the museum. It also provides virtual exhibits, online collections, and digital resources. The NMAAHC also has, among other things, a “Talking About Race Web Portal” designed to help people participate in productive, inspiring conversation. Please note “National Museum of American History” includes the word “Negro” and may also include the “n-word.”
- The country’s two biggest repositories of American history also have websites with exhibits and online collections. Their collections are based on documents, making them different from the National Museum of African American History, which uses material culture as well. All institutions share an expertise, an approachability, and a public responsibility to tell the story of the Black experience. Library of Congress and National Archives do not focus on the colonial period, but both have a wide array of books, periodicals, letters, diaries available online. Please note the Library of Congress and the National Archives includes the word “Negro” and may also include the “n-word.”
Williamsburg-specific Sources on African American History
- The Interpreter was an internal Colonial Williamsburg publication that provided historical content
to frontline staff for over three decades. This very special edition focused on enslavement and the
Black experience, including fantastic articles including a reader-friendly version of Anne Willis’
excellent article on slavery and crime and punishment and Ywone Edwards Ingram’s brilliant work on
trash and enslavement.
- Edwards-Ingram, Ywone. “The Trash of Enslaved African Virginia.” The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, Winter 1999. 9-15.
- Willis, Anne. “The Master’s Mercy: Slave Prosecutions and Punishments in York County, Virginia, 1700-1780.” The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, Winter 1999. 2-8.
- Music has been a key part of Black culture for hundreds of years and Colonial Williamsburg’s Black interpreters have been keeping the eighteenth-century traditions alive. This Colonial Williamsburg Journal article provides a look at how African American music has shaped programming and interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg.
- The Albert Durant Photography Collection encompasses photoprints, negatives, slides, and personal papers that document the photographic production of Williamsburg's first black city-licensed photographer, Albert Durant. Durant's work provides a priceless visual history of African American life in Williamsburg, Virginia and surrounding communities from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. Since the collection encompasses ten thousand images, highlights of some of the major subject categories covered by the photos are presented here.