Visiting the Revolutionary City
So a few weeks ago I finally had the chance to visit Colonial Williamsburg…about 23 years after my last visit. I loved it then as a child, but remembered “pottery” more than anything, and the beautiful buildings. This time while I was in town on business, I was able to have plenty of time at CW. My business was there so clearly, there was no excuse not to take a look around.
I got in on a Monday afternoon and made the short drive from the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport to my hotel, I was glad to know that I was within walking distance of the site and went for an early evening stroll to see what was what. Because it was after 5, the buildings were closed but there were quite a few folks walking around and just enjoying the scenery. I happened to be one of them. I saw Great Hope Plantation and made a mental note to return the next morning, the Governor’s Palace look absolutely breath taking in the afternoon sun and a venture to the Capitol. I walked along Duke of Gloucester Street amazed at everything and was really in a bit of a daze. So I met a friend from Charlotte at Aroma’s Specialty Coffee and Gourmet Bakery for dinner (thanks Terry), went back to my hotel and got ready for the next day.
My gracious hosts at Colonial Williamsburg left me a packet full of information on what was going on during the day and I was going to experience Day 1 of the Revolutionary City program The Old Order Collapses, 1775-1776. However the first thing I wanted to do was make my way to Great Hopes Plantation. I knew that earlier in the month, my friend Michael Twitty had brought the Southern Discomfort Tour to CW and it had been great. I also knew that Great Hope was set up as a middling plantation that had some slaves and that the story of enslaved men and women was shared here. The great hosts that they were knew my background of research and suggested that I visit both Great Hope and the Peyton Randolph House…so I did.
Great Hopes was a real plantation, but it’s current location is not it’s original location, in fact they are still building it. However that takes nothing away from it. Not one solitary thing. I was greeted by an African American interpreter who quickly and effectively explain what it is I’m going to see, hear and possibly smell (it was hot and the pigs…whew!) She places me “in the moment” and encourages me to come back if I have any questions. Pointing out the small piece of land where the home will be built, I see the other out buildings, including the smokehouse, kitchen and slave cabin. There are corn fields, kitchen gardens, slave gardens. I made my way around, watching men work wood that would eventually lead to one of the buildings at the plantation (it’s been a few weeks so all the details aren’t there…sorry) and I was just amazed at the talent in handcrafting these buildings and how fine the woodworking was. If you weren’t watching it happen, you’d think they went to Lowes and just brought the pieces to the site. *I will note that a goal of GH is to highlight the interpretation of slave life, so while in the cabin my interpreter was not African American, there were AA interpreters there and doing an amazing job as well. Just when I made my rounds, I rolled with whoever was present. So absolutely no slight to my fellow interpreters making it happen and doing a damn good job of it!*
I made my way over to the slave cabin and was greeted by yet another interpreter. She wasn’t black and I actually breathed a sigh of relief! Before folks get up in arms, if you’ve been following me for any time, you know I feel that in 3rd person interpretation, any staff member who is trained can and should talk about the enslaved experience. Being black does not automatically make you an expert on slavery and there are sites with employees that actually have that sentiment, so this was refreshing. Let me tell ya’ll, my interpreter was thorough, accurate, had enthusiasm that was slightly stiffled due to the humidity (the humidity was “choke you” thick in that cabin) but enthused nonetheless. As I looked around, I saw plenty that was familiar to me as an interpreter. The bed, the clothing, the mortar and pestle used to grind corn, a peck of corn…all those things I knew well. What was different was the dirt floors, as Brattonsville has raised wooden floors for their cabins. I wasn’t surprised, but what clicked was the root cellars and how those seemed to work better in a dirt floor. As far as we know, Bratton cabins did not show root cellars, although there are still some archaeological reports I have yet to tackle. But looking at the root cellar filled with sweet potatoes, and the peck of corn, I started to see the family (families) that would live there. Then I looked over to the bed which would have been reserved for elders. I saw a hole underneath the bed. For a second I thought…toilet? The visitors that were in the cabin with me thought the same thing and asked, but my ever wonderful interpreter was able to tell us that this hole in the ground would have been where personal belongings would be hidden. Because the enslaved were rarely allowed personal effects (although there are some who were able to earn money to purchase small tokens) these holes could easily be covered to hide their belongings from owners. She then pointed to another hole across the room that held a doll in it to show exactly how these holes were used. Her knowledge made me smile, her comfort in the topic made me giddy, it really was so refreshing.
I thanked the interpreter and made my way to the garden where I passed a small pen where chickens were hanging out…knowing that their eggs could be sold, and the chickens themselves could be sold. I had plenty of experience with the poultry at HB and did not desire to really sit and have a heart to heart with a bird that can have a temper, so I kept it moving. The garden looked as if it had been ransacked, which would make sense with Michael’s tour being there about 2 weeks earlier and them using produce from the garden in the cooking demonstrations. That along with the absurd heat Williamsburg has been slammed with this summer and I could tell that it was time to think about replanting. There were spicy Cayenne’s, cabbages, squash, bush beans and the biggest okra plant I have seen among some herbs and I just felt at home. I wanted to piece together a quick meal with what I saw but kept it moving. Everything about Great Hope was wonderful and even the pigs were a delight, funky but delightful.
I continued on my journey to the main part of the site, which is the city. The Governor’s Palace? Breathtaking. The amount of weapons on the inside? INSANE. If you’ve been, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you need to go. At first you are extremely uneasy. Ya’ll, there are a lot of weapons. A LOT. While I did tour the inside, I did not take pictures. However, thanks to Google and Williamsburg’s website, I was able to get a picture. Those things you see all crisscrossed? Swords. That’s just part of the entrance. Muskets all over the walls, a fan of pistols for a little decoration, just madness I tell you!
But the first part of my day was not about the Palace or anything like that. I was on my way to the Peyton Randolph House, another suggested stop by the hosts with the most. Here, I got a personalized tour since I was the only one participating and had a lengthy conversation about what was going on with the slaves at this house. Once again, my guide was not African American but just as knowledgeable as could be. For those of you wondering? Yes, Colonial Williamsburg has plenty of African American interpreters…I ran into quite a few. They are amazing, just my encounters that day were not with them. And while I gathered a TON of information from the Randolph house and the history there, I was more enamored with the interpreter and the amount of information she knew and once I told her that I too was an interpreter, she started to really share her techniques on how she uses her training and intuition to really connect her audience with the material because it can be a bit much for people to handle. Especially when you are interpreting “in the moment”. “In the moment” interpretation is when you are placed on a certain date, year, month, event, whatever. You are there, but the information is still usually given in 3rd person. This is also done in first person as well which I imagine that experience will be like stepping into a time warp (I didn’t get to experience in the moment in first person). Either way, being in the moment makes you very aware of your surroundings, the circumstances and for me, the choices that people would have made. It wasn’t so much as a fun trip back in time, but more of a better understanding of what course of action would be appropriate in this situation. Crazy fun experience for this history nerd. Once the official tour was done, my interpreter (why didn’t I get anyone’s name? Oh well, I passed along descriptions to folks I knew would pass my gratitude along) and I just sat in the equivalent of the “break room” for the enslaved at the PR House. I’m using the term break room very loosely, so please, do not get uptight and offended. How the room was described to me was this would be a place to catch a quick breath, eat whatever lunch meal you were offered and get right back to work. We sat there amidst slates and talked about educating slaves. We talked about what it meant to take a “break”, how news traveled , how Mrs. Randolph would be able to watch what was going on and go completely undetected and just how stifling and fearful an experience would be knowing that your every move was being watched and any one misstep could lead to you being sold away from family. We talked about how do you get that emotion across to your guests who become uneasy and want to know about a copper pot instead when the focus of the tour is on this often slighted group. The positive honesty was so great and to see once again, an interpreter who was not African American comfortable and own her presentation and be able to nail the information? Blown away was I.
It was the inclusiveness of the history…creating one story with all components that Williamsburg has been working on for years come together and after reading about it, finally being able to experience it? I felt like I was in an interpretive heaven. Granted, I know there are those out there that will disagree with my assessment and the beauty of that is…it’s my assessment so what I experienced can’t be taken away from me. I came in with high expectations and they were met. I came in with a historian and interpreter’s experience and saw research that I’ve done and things that I’ve read about and criticisms that have been posed all carried out and answered. It’s one thing to have a site say they have all this research and information but it’s another thing to watch that information being handed to visitors in the form of tours, interpretive presentations and dramatic dialogue. From the way language is expressed, to the breathing of presenters (ridiculously important when speaking without microphones to large groups), posture and overall swagger (yep, swagger) of the staff I was happy.
While I don’t want to slight the rest of my visit, this post is long so here are some other highlights. Shield’s Tavern was amazing. Granted I had just a salad, but because I was on business, I didn’t want to go too heavy on the food. However, I will be back and I will tackle that menu. The atmosphere was fun and I cannot wait to return.
-Capitol Tour: Talk about being in the moment. My guide was amazing as she guided us through the tensions of 1776 and how things had changed and would continue to change. I was also captivated by the chair for the Speaker. These “thrones” as I called them, were magnificent and breathtaking.
-Cabinet Maker: If you don’t do anything else, stop by. Everything in there was made by the carpenters that you see working. I felt like I had accomplished nothing in my life after watching them work and seeing the craftsmanship that was done. I also liked the work that was the “warm-up” piece. Really? I cried a little on the inside, it was gorgeous!
-Governor’s Palace Tour: Like I said earlier, once you get past the weaponry, this is an incredible tour, and the Palace is breathtaking. Take the tour.
Very interesting post – particularly your critique of the third person interpretation in the slave cabin. I can’t imagine how much research, hard work and effort goes into being a truly effective interpreter, but I’d imagine it’s not only lengthy, but a process than really never ends.