Within the black community, critics worried Colonial Williamsburg was trying to bring back “slavery times,” as one local minister suggested, or at least renew some of the degradation and humiliation of the Colonial period by dressing up a 20th-century African American as a slave.
The Foundation’s educational mission rested on the belief that “the future may learn from the past” — including its most shameful chapters. However, the concern for the interpreters proved to have merit.
Over the past 40 years, black interpreters have reported being subjected to racial slurs, having “boy” derisively yelled at them, hearing Dixie whistled by a guest, interacting with guests who have assigned themselves the role of slave owner, being touched as if an object and handling questions such as “Can I buy you?” and “Does your master know where you are?”
Incidents like these happen to this day. Ellis advises interpreters to stay focused on the historical fact that inspired them to take the job in the first place: In the 18th century, more than half the population of Williamsburg was black.
“If you did not know that, if you did not understand that, if you were not focused on that, you were missing half the history,” Ellis said. “If you don’t see African Americans in Williamsburg, you are missing half the history of the beginning of the nation.”
In the early years Ellis noticed one coworker, a black tavern worker, who would scowl or avert her eyes from him and his fellow African American interpreters. He suspected contempt for their participation in the living history program.
One day, several years later, the woman approached him for the first time: “When you first came here and started doing what you were doing, I thought it was the worst thing you could do for us and our people, but now I’m convinced that what you have done has made a difference in how people see our history,” Ellis recalled her saying. Her change of heart brought him to tears. It was the moment he knew the program was succeeding not only in teaching black history but also doing it in a way that could reach even its harshest skeptics.
“Here was someone who was 100 percent against what we were doing, whose opinion had changed because she had seen the positive and good work we were doing by our presence and by the information we were sharing with people,” Ellis said.