Williamsburg plans re-enactments of 18th century slave auctions

October 06, 1994|By Newport News Daily Press

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation will re-enact an 18th century slave auction for the first time Monday -- a vivid step back into racism the foundation's black history interpreters decided to take themselves.

"The staff felt it was time to show rather than just discuss the horrors of slavery," said Christy Coleman, director of Colonial Williamsburg's Department of African-American Interpretations and Presentations.

Ms. Coleman and three other black actors will be sold from noon to 12:45 p.m. outside the Wetherburn Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street.

The auction will include a twist: A freed black man will be one of the buyers.

Ms. Coleman will portray a wife being sold away from her husband.

"That will get very emotional," she said. "For years, we've said, 'What if we do an auction?' and the response has been, 'No, we're not ready for it, and the visitors are not ready for it.' But now we think we're ready to take the next step."

Colonial Williamsburg actors often dramatize various aspects of 1770 Williamsburg -- a town whose population was 50 percent black -- but the slave auction is a dramatic step for the museum that had no black actors on its streets 20 years ago.

"We know this is pushing the envelope, and that people will call, saying this is outrageous," Ms. Coleman said. "But they said that 15 years ago, when we started African-American history programs, and five years ago, when we opened the slave quarters at Carter's Grove. We're ready."

Concerns that the dramatization borders inappropriately on entertainment are very real, Ms. Coleman said, and ones Colonial Williamsburg staff takes seriously. "Our goal is to educate, and if doing so upsets people from time to time, we're willing to do that," she said.

Monday's slave auction is a composite of 18th century slave auctions that actually happened. It will not play on images of Africans by the hundreds being unloaded from ships in chains -- that happened in the port city of Yorktown, Ms. Coleman said.

Instead, Monday's auction will reflect the typical slave auction in Virginia's capital city of the time: the selling of household slaves to settle estates and debts.

"This is much easier to manage, but we can still get to some of the very serious issues," she said.

The portrayal of black history has often been painful for the blacks portraying it. As recently as 1990, Colonial Williamsburg's black actors reported having white tourists toss racial slurs and subtle snubs at them -- in one case, even asking the black guide to shine their shoes.

But by last summer, Ms. Coleman had convinced the foundation to present one dramatic program that explored colonial slave marriages and another in which a white landowner had a child with his slave while contemplating marriage to a white woman. Both proved successful.

The black actors in Ms. Coleman's department were unanimous in saying they were ready to portray a slave auction, Ms. Coleman said. They also surveyed the opinions of other black tour guides at Colonial Williamsburg.

"Nobody said, 'Please don't do it,' " Ms. Coleman said. "Their biggest concern was: How are you going to keep the visitors from bidding? How are you going to protect your people?"

Ms. Coleman said a tour guide will set the scene before the action begins, and visitors will be warned three different times not to bid.

"There are a lot of protections built in," Ms. Coleman said.

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