'Slave auction' divides crowd in Williamsburg

October 11, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- As white actors in tricorn hats and ruffled waistcoats re-created a Colonial slave auction here yesterday, two modern-day African-Americans sat in silent protest on the steps of a restored tavern.

"This is 1994," said one, Dr. Milton A. Reid, a Baptist minister from Norfolk, Va. "As far as we have come, to go back to this, for entertainment, is despicable and disgusting. This is the kind of anguish we need not display."

Dr. Reid spoke after a brief scuffle between six demonstrators and several employees of Colonial Williamsburg.

The slave auction, which has generated protests and complaints from the moment it was announced last week, was being staged for the first time by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which operates the restored Colonial community.

The presence of the two demonstrators in the midst of the auction was a contemporary intrusion in what the foundation had promised would be a tasteful but moving dramatization of the horror of slavery. The other four protesters watched the 30-minute production from nearby.

The year was supposed to be 1773.

Billy, a carpenter carrying his simple tools in a wooden box, fetched 67 pounds sterling.

"You can keep the tools after you sell him," shouted the actor playing one unsuccessful bidder, a character named William Allason, a member of the landed gentry. Mr. Allason, like all the characters, was based on historical research.

Earlier, Mr. Allason had balked at paying 40 pounds for Sukey, a washerwoman.

"She's not worth the price," he sniffed, in a British accent. Sukey was sold for 42 pounds to a free black farmer who turned out to be her husband.

An audience of more than 2,000 lined Duke of Gloucester Street, the main road in Colonial Williamsburg. Most were as silent as if they were in church. Some wept. Three-quarters were white.

In yesterday's production, the sale of four slaves and some land had been ordered by a court to pay the debts of several estates.

Just before the auctioneer mounted the steps of Weatherburn's Tavern, the six demonstrators pushed through the audience and began singing, "We Shall Overcome."

Costumed employees of Colonial Williamburg, some using canes and umbrellas, tried to push the demonstrators back behind the ropes. During the altercation, Jack Gravely, political director of the Virginia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who organized the protest, shouted, "You cannot portray our history in 21 minutes and make it some sideshow."

Spectators booed the protesters. Christy Coleman, Colonial Williamsburg's new director of black history, who was to portray Lucy, a house servant sold when she was seven months pregnant, came out of the tavern and grabbed a microphone.

"You all are going to watch!" she demanded of Mr. Gravely and his companions, tears rolling down her cheeks. "I want you to judge with honest hearts and honest minds."

At that point, two protesters -- Dr. Reid, 64, and the Rev. Curtis W. Harris, 70, president of the Virginia chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- sat on the steps and challenged officials to call the police. They did not, and the show went on.

As Lucy was sold, Ms. Coleman cried and hid her face. Among those who were moved was Mr. Gravely, who startled everyone by retracting his objections after the bidding closed.

"Pain had a face," he said. "Indignity had a body. Suffering had tears."

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