Colonial Williamsburg and African Americans
By Candyce H. Stapen
In the 1770’s patriots such as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson argued for rebellion from Britain because the motherland had violated their rights with excessive taxation and other punitive acts. But what about the slaves? Find out what “freedom” meant for Africans at Colonial Williamsburg, which celebrates 30 years of African American programming in 2009 with added experiences, tours and lectures.
Williamsburg served as the capital of Virginia, England’s richest and most populous colony, from 1699 to 1776. Most of Williamsburg’s citizens eventually rallied behind revolution. On the eve of the rebellion, the period depicted at Colonial Williamsburg, Africans accounted for more than 52% of the population.
To find out what choices they had, we sign up for “In their Own Words: African Americans in the Revolutionary Era,” a one hour walking tour. The first thing Louise, our guide, does is line up our group of 25 shoulder to shoulder in tight rows to simulate the “loose pack” formation slaves endured for 70 days on the voyage from West Africa. We march across the street to Bruton Parish Church, a few minutes walk. Despite being unshackled and upright (slaves were prone on the floor), the forced closeness makes us feel encroached upon.
Then, Louise points to one row, saying “Move over there; you didn’t make it.” About 20% of the captives died en route. She tells us how the Church and colonial law conspired to turn the survivors, formerly free Africans, into slaves. Louise reminds us that in the New World, we are property. “ Like a chair or a table, slaves had no rights,” she says.
The first Africans arrived in Jamestown in 1619. A 1670 proclamation declared that all non-Christians entering the colony by ship will be in servitude for their lives, as will their children, their children’s children and all the generations. Some owners had their slaves converted to Christianity. No matter, Louise states, Christian slaves, the Church pronounced around 1677, continued to be property; however, the master of a baptized slave, the Church declared, will reap a reward in heaven.
A lucky few obtained freedom by purchasing it. One of Colonial Williamsburg’s 11 free blacks, Matthew Ashby worked for years to buy his wife and three children from their owner for 150 British pounds, a fortune in the 1770’s. Governor Dunmore in November 1775 provided another option. With the colony in near open revolt, Governor Dunmore retreated to a ship in Norfolk harbor. From there he mandated freedom for any slave who joined the British forces to fight the patriots.
“What would you do?,” Louise asks us as we sit in the garden behind the printing shop. Remain a slave to your master? Likely to encounter hard times in war, he could sell you and your children to separate owners at any moment. Even though the British promised freedom, you had to reach the Royal troops in Norfolk, a formidable 45 miles away in Norfolk.
Sitting in the shade of an old oak tree, we arrive at a surprising decision. Despite our patriotic zeal, we say “Go with the British.” Although the odds are against us even making it to Norfolk, at least there, we reason, we have a chance to keep our children and someday, if we survive, be free.
About 100,000 slaves came to the same decision. Many died en route and in battle. Some were caught, returned and severely punished or killed. Despite losing the Revolution, the British kept their promise, resettling 20,000-25,000 former slaves as free people in Nova Scotia.
“In Their Own Words” is just one of Colonial Williamsburg’s interesting African American programs. Some, like “In their Own Words” are included with admissions; others require an extra fee. Check the daily program listings.
The Williamsburg area offers many lodging options. Our two favorite properties within the historic area are the Williamsburg Inn, a 62 room luxury hotel with impeccable service as well as the nearby Williamsburg Lodge, whose 323 rooms offer comfortable accommodations and good value within an easy walk of the historic area’s attractions.