History isn't pretty

October 12, 1994

Too often, we tend to romanticize our past. We remember the stoic Pilgrims seeking religious freedom and the gallant Paul Revere galloping through the streets.

But this week, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation set out to portray one of the more sordid sides of our history by recreating a slave auction. The skit was a controversial and emotional departure for the normally conservative Colonial Williamsburg, which until now tended to present programs on such innocuous topics as 18th-century barrel making and tobacco farming.

This time, researchers presented the stories of real men and women who had been sold at auction. They showed the pregnant Lucy begging to stay with her husband, Daniel; the carpenter Billy, who was sold with his tools; and the laundress Sukie, who was bought by her free husband.

Protesters from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Leadership Conference tried to block the presentation, saying that it trivialized the heritage of African-Americans. A 40-minute skit, they said, could not do justice to the injustices blacks suffered in this country.

But Christy Coleman, director of the foundation's African-American department and organizer of the performance,

argued that the skit gave a human face to a national tragedy. She's right. By the end of the performance, members of the audience were weeping, and at least some of the protesters had changed their minds and agreed that the program had been worthwhile.

Ms. Coleman and Colonial Williamsburg should be commended for having the courage to portray the country's past honestly and for reminding us that evil is not perpetrated just by a few wicked men. Much of our history is not pretty. As a nation, we forced

Native Americans onto reservations, put children to work in factories and, yes, sold blacks on the auction block like cattle.

The trustees of our historical sites in Maryland ought to be willing to follow Williamsburg's example and show that our past is more than the compilation of stories about the white men who signed our Declaration of Independence and built stately Georgian homes in Annapolis and Baltimore. They should not be afraid to tell the stories of the slaves, the women and the immigrants, even if their lives were neither pretty nor romantic.

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