Slavery in Colonial Virginia History: Exhibits and interpreters show visitors what life was like for African-Americans in the 18th century.

Taking the Kids

January 04, 1998|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Deborah Downs laid the old-fashioned broom across the floor and invited the giggling kids to jump over it. "Congratulations, you're now husband and wife," said Downs, the hip, young African-American interpreter. Her point: To explain African-American family traditions -- 18th-century Williamsburg style. Whoever jumped the highest headed the household, Downs explained. Divorce was as simple as jumping backward over the broom.

These weren't legal attachments, she told the kids. Because most African-Americans who lived here were slaves, couples and their children could be separated at the whim of their master.

"Imagine how parents felt knowing they couldn't protect their children. Imagine how those kids must have felt," she said.

The kids in the group, including my 11-year-old daughter, Reggie, other middle- and grade-schoolers from around the country, certainly have studied the institution of slavery. Yet they -- as well as their parents -- were clearly moved to hear in such a personal way how slave families -- kids and parents just like them -- were forced to live.

Steven Spielberg's much-discussed new movie, "Amistad," the story of the aftermath of an 1839 shipboard rebellion of 53 African slaves on route here, has cast a new national spotlight on slavery.

With Martin Luther King Day just a few weeks away, and Black History Month in February, there's no better time to make sure the kids appreciate the key role African-American families have played in this country from its beginning. Colonial Williamsburg is a terrific place to teach kids that lesson -- without their realizing it's a lesson.

Williamsburg was one of the most important cities in the Colonies in the 18th century. Not only were African-Americans half the population there then (though they're not in the historical area today), but many were skilled craftsmen, cooks, personal ,, assistants and confidants to leading legislators and businessmen.

"We're doing more about African-Americans every year," said Christy Matthews, who oversees African-American programs at Williamsburg. Visiting families might spend an evening with old Paris as he recalls Africa, his enslavement and how he survived, while actors portray his memories onstage. They could join in the dance and storytelling traditions of early African-Americans or make baskets with slave children a few miles away at Carter's Grove Slave Quarter. (Check to see which activities are offered that week.)

Matthews noted that slave programs will continue to expand this spring as Colonial Williamsburg revamps all kinds of exhibits through the historical area to make them more interactive and kid-friendly.

The good news, Matthews said, is that the numbers of African-Americans coming to Williamsburg has more than doubled in the past five years to 22,000. The bad news is that still represents less than 3 percent of the annual visits.

Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053 or e-mail to While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in future columns.

When you go

Call 800-HISTORY or visit Williamsburg's Web site at We stayed both at the Woodlands Lodge, a short shuttle-bus ride from the historic area, and at the more upscale Williamsburg Lodge. Comfortable, motel-style rooms overlooking the extensive grounds can be had at the Woodlands for about $75 a night during the winter and $120 in summer. The kids will like thewaterfall, a duck pond, mini golf, tennis and outdoor pool (closed in the winter).

In chilly weather, I preferred the Williamsburg Lodge because of its indoor pool, its convenience -- a half-block from the historic area and across the street from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center and its current historic toy exhibit -- and the ambience. There's a large lobby with a huge fireplace, groups of deep, leather chairs, checker sets on the tables invariably being played by kids and parents. In summer and some weekend evenings, there are children's activities here as well as at the folk art center. Rates start at $139 in low season and $225 in summer. Ask about hotel-admission packages.

Basic one-day tickets cost $25 for adults and $15 for children 6-12. Don't forget to reserve ahead for a meal at one of the 18th-century taverns. Try Shield's Tavern, where African-American balladeers perform in summer on the tavern's outdoor garden stage.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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