'Slave auction' divides crowd in Williamsburg

October 11, 1994|By Newport News Daily Press

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's re-enactment yesterday of whites selling blacks in a slave auction bitterly divided a crowd that jammed Duke of Gloucester Street to watch.

Protesters from the NAACP and the College of William and Mary delayed but failed to stop the re-enactment, and emotional debates peppered the event and continued among the crowd for more than an hour after the program ended.

"I think the most important part of the program was the discussion afterward," said Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Robert Wilburn. "I was glad to see people stayed, because people really don't understand this chapter in American history."

More than 2,000 people gathered to watch four actors portraying slaves be sold, along with land and farm equipment, as part of an auction to settle estates and debts. The re-enactment itself went smoothly, without any of the catcalls or fake bids officials had feared.

Most of the impromptu shouts the auction did produce were urgings that a plantation owner buy the wife of the male slave he had just purchased, but the script had the couple being split to show how slavery disrupted families in the 18th century.

But before the program, activists and turmoil in the crowd almost blocked the presentation. Members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference sang "We Shall Overcome" and stood on the steps where four actors dressed as slaves were scheduled to be auctioned at noon.

"We don't want the history of people who have come so far and done so much to be trivialized in a carnival atmosphere such as we have here," said Jack Gravely, political action chairman of the Virginia chapter of the NAACP. His remarks were met with boos.

Curtis Harris, president of the Virginia branch of the SCLC, demanded to be arrested and sat on the steps in front of the tavern, but he was not arrested and remained there during the presentation.

The protests forced Christy Coleman, Colonial Williamsburg's new director of black history, and one of the black actors, to come out on the steps early and face down protesters over a presentation of the painful history she shares with them.

"I think today is a very, very real tragedy," said Ms. Coleman, choking with emotion. "We came here to tell the story of our mothers and our grandmothers. We wanted to do this voluntarily, to teach about the evils of slavery."

Mr. Harris said after the re-enactment, "I felt terrible about it. I felt it was a show. It was not authentic history. They just wanted to have a show."

But Mr. Gravely had a change of heart. "I would be lying if I said I didn't come out with a different view," he said. "The presentation was passionate, moving and educational."

The event brought alive the arguments over how black history should be taught. Andrew Highsmith, a junior at the College of William and Mary, argued that the auction confirms Colonial Williamsburg as a haven of history from a white's point of view.

Mr. Highsmith charged that the slave characters were too obedient and too neatly dressed to be accurate, and he held up a red sign reading, "Remember the Fighting Histories: John Brown, Nat Turner and the Freedom Fighters" throughout the program.

Colonial Williamsburg black history actor Larry Earl confronted Mr. Highsmith after the program and told him: "If we show only the story of fight-backs, we're not doing our job. Today is just one program. . . . When you see all our programs, you will see it."

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