Williamsburg in Black and White

Blacks and slavery get attention at last in a historic re-enactment that's drawing and transfixing crowds.

August 22, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- The news spread through this Virginia colony like a runaway virus. Lord Dunmore, the British governor, was promising freedom to any black who could get to Norfolk and join him in fighting the rebellious colonists.

The offer teased Peter Southall's imagination. He already knew what freedom felt like. He'd spent four years on the run in North Carolina before his luck ran out.

But the joy of freedom remained in his heart. "You see this proclamation?" he says, holding a tattered sheet of paper and grabbing a man from among the crowd clustered around him. "I want you to read it, so these people can hear it from one of their own."

The stranger reads the promise, with its offers of muskets and freedom. "S-say that word again," says Peter, a 23-year-old slave with a wife and child. "Say it loud." "Free?"

"Free!" he says, as if the sound itself could lift the soul.

On this day in November 1775, the hope of freedom will consume him. He'll seek advice, argue with his wife, dodge slave patrols and try, desperately, to make his choice -- all as part of a dramatic re-enactment called "To Run or To Stay." It's one of a series of programs at Colonial Williamsburg this year that delve into the lives of blacks who lived in this historic town during the 18th century, when blacks made up half the population. "Trying to Git Some Mother Wit" offers a poignant look at the healing power of humor, while "A Broken Spirit" takes visitors deep into the brutal, complex world of plantation slavery.

For years, these lives were largely ignored. "Enslaving Virginia" has changed that. No longer are George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson the only big draws at this living history museum. Now visitors also come to see the story of Peter and Sarah Southall.

Several years ago, Colonial Williamsburg was reviled by many for re-enacting a slave auction. What administrators saw as an effort at historical accuracy instead became a lightning rod for criticism and "I told you so's."

Since its debut in March, "Enslaving Virginia" has brought national and international attention, most of it positive. The Southalls' story, played out on the streets of Williamsburg twice a week, draws crowds rivaling those that follow the fife and drum corps of British redcoats.

Throughout the day, visitors meet the Coopers, free blacks who own two slaves; Miss Lydia, matriarch of the slave community; and Talbott Thompson, a free black from Norfolk with tales of lynchings, house burnings and revolution.

Richard Josey and Hope Smith, both 23, play Peter and Sarah Southall. They're veterans of Colonial Williamsburg, having started as child re-enactors. They say "Enslaving Virginia" has been a success.

"I think it has opened a lot of people's eyes, especially dealing with slave individuals," says Smith, a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Before, she says, visitors "never knew what they were doing or what they thought."

To make their story and their characters as authentic as possible, Josey and Smith did extensive research, poring over library collections and slave narratives.

Still, they were not sure how people would react.

"Just [from] the title, `Enslaving Virginia,' people get all kinds of ideas," says Smith. "But we knew we had done the research. The stories are realistic, with restraint. There are no chains, no manacles. Lorraine Brooks, a spokesman for Colonial Williamsburg, believes you can tell history without being overly graphic. Perhaps that is a lesson learned from the slave auction.

"The goal, of course, is to educate," she says. "These were real people who had the same emotions and passions that we share today."

There are still dissenters. Brooks occasionally gets e-mails asking, "How could you do this?" and "Why are you digging this up?" The wound of slavery has not healed. It is as if what William Faulkner wrote is true: "The past is not dead. It's not even past."

"Now, what about y'all?" Peter Southall says, turning to the crowd and refolding his copy of the proclamation. "What are y'all planning on doing?"

No one responds. It is too early in the story. People don't know if they're supposed to be spectators or participants. They look on, silent.

Peter and Sarah, Miss Lydia and Talbott talk among themselves. The community is rife with rumors. Some say Dunmore only wants the blacks for cannon fodder. Not so, says Talbott. The Hessians take the front line.

The conversation stops when Miss Lydia sees three men looking on from 100 yards away. There's fear in her voice.

"Y'all get on your feet and don't say a word," she tells the largely white crowd. "Don't say nothing to none of them because they will use their muskets."

The men -- a slave patrol -- come forward, three swaggering white men carrying their power in their muskets and in their skin.

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