Building a Better Colonial Williamsburg (2023)


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Virginia's reconstructed colonial capital, long criticized as an idealized image of the American Revolution, is bringing its history into the 21st century.

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Building a Better Colonial Williamsburg (1)

AlreadyJennifer Schuessler

WILLEMSBURG, Va. — Those who come to Colonial Williamsburg for a nostalgic trip will find something of what they are looking for.

A snare and drum band still marches down Duke of Gloucester Street, whose shop windows are lined with costumed performers making or reenacting 18th-century wigspolitical discussionsthat helped start the American Revolution.

But walk to the pillars and columns outside the courthouse to recreate a silly photo from a long-ago school trip, and you'll see headdresses bolted on.

They were closed in the spring of 2020, as a Covid-related measure. And the rest is so, like Colonial Williamsburg - the largest "living history" museum in the world -rate the messagesbehind your favorite Instagram moment.

“These are friendly shares,” Matt Webster, director of architectural preservation, explained during a recent tour (also pointing out a not-so-friendly whip post nearby).

And not exactly accurate. 18th century stocks would be bigger, smaller and more awkward. "Their intent was to humiliate," Webster said.

The altered sections are a fitting metaphor for today's Colonial Williamsburg, a 301-acre complex comprising more than 600 restored or reconstructed 18th-century buildings, 30 gardens, five hotels, three theaters, two art museums, and a long, intricate history of conflict. with questions about authenticity, national identity and what it means to correct the past.


After a decade of declining attendance andfinancial instability, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the private entity that owns and operates this site, is rethinking not only some of its structures, but also the stories it tells, adding or removing offerings related to Black, Native American, and LGB.T.Q to expand. history.

And it happens in the midst of a bitter partisan battle over American history, when the date "1776" - emblazoned on souvenir baseball caps sold here - has becomepartisan battle cry.

Someconservative activistshave accused Colonial Williamsburg of going"He woke up,"attackalso lobbiedagainst Monticello and Montpelier, home of James Madison. ButCliff fleet, a former tobacco industry executive who became president and CEO of the foundation in early 2020, flatly dismisses that.


Fleet describes his approach as building on Colonial Williamsburg's longstanding mission to present "evidence-based history" grounded in thorough research.

"That goes for our brand," he said. "Everything will be what actually happened. That's us."

Retelling "what really happened" is no easy matter, as any historian will tell you. But when it comes to the state of modern-day Colonial Williamsburg, some facts speak volumes.

In 2021, the foundation has adossier$102 million, up 42 percent from the previous record set in 2019. To date, it has raised more than $6 million for the excavation and reconstruction of the First Baptist Church, home to one of the first black congregations in the United States ( founded in 1776), and more than $8 million to renovate Bray School, which taught free and enslaved black children in the 1760s and '70s.

Those projects have received support across the political spectrum, including from Governor Glenn Youngkin. In February became governor - a Republican who signed on his first day in officeexecutive orderban the teaching of critical race theory and other "inherently divisive concepts" in public schools — spoke at an event for Bray School, citing the need to "make our whole history, our whole,good and bad.”

For some longtime Williamsburg viewers, the institution's leadership has deftly navigated today's turbulent political waters while staying true to its past.

"It's a remarkable shift, but in a way it's a return to the CW's original mission," said Karin Wulf, a historian and former executive.Institute Omohundro, an independent research group at the College of William & Mary.

"A decade of scholarship has given us a fuller and richer picture of early America," Wulf said. "It's diverse, complex, violent. But it's the real thing."

A patriotic shrine

Colonial Williamsburg has its own complicated founding story. In the 1920s, alocal ministerconvinced John D. Rockefeller Jr. to quietly purchase much of the historic area, aiming to recreate Virginia's 18th-century colonial capital, down to every historically accurate stone and nail.

Hundreds of buildings built after 1800 have been dismantled or relocated. More than 80 surviving 18th-century buildings have been restored, while the foundations of more than 500 others have been excavated to build meticulously researched replicas of the buildings.


After World War II, Colonial Williamsburg became a patriotic sanctuary and "a symbol of democracy in a troubled world," as one top executive put it. The bicentenary brought a new boom, peaking in the mid-1980s with annual paid attendance of 1.1 million, many of them inperiod styleinns (or raked colonial style authorizedhousehold products).

But not everyone appreciated the wonderfully spicy aesthetic. Writing in The New York Times in 1963, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtablecalled it"an extremely executed vacuum", which promoted "an unforgivable blurring between the values ​​of the real and the imitation".

The carefully nurtured history has also drawn criticism, especially as social history, with its emphasis on ordinary people and marginalized groups, has jumped into the academy.





1770-ih god.more than halfof the city's 1,800 residents were black, although visitors to modern recreation were not always aware of this.

"Williamsburg: A Patriot's Witness",a thrilling orientation film shown at the visitor center in 1957 featured several black faces. Even into the 1980s, black workers in the historic area generally worked as (costumed) janitors, carriage drivers, or cooks—something that could be seen but little heard.

"It was a very minor role," said Ron Hurst, senior vice president of education and historical resources. "Consciously or unconsciously, that's how it was."

The shift began in 1979, when the foundation introduced costumed "first-person" interpreters that portrayed everyday people, white and black. In 1984 she founded a special African American historical unit, which he ledRex Ellis, who became the foundation's first black vice president in 2001.

But the unit's work sometimes blended uncomfortably with more traditional presentations. In his 1997 book"New History in the Old Museum"anthropologists Richard Handler and Eric Gable described how black interpreters would address the problematic subject of race relations, which some white interpreters have shied away from because they are not rooted in"documented facts."

Some programs brought out the brutal reality of slavery. In 1994, the Department of Black History was establisheda re-enactment of the slave auction, which led to protests from the N.A.A.C.P. and other human rights organizations. And in 1999, as part of a one-year project calledSlavery of Virginia, a performance featured costumed performers portraying slave leaders and slave owners, while visitors (who were mostly white) were cast in the role of slaves.


Christy Coleman, former translator who is now CEOZaklada Jamestown-Yorktown, organized and auctioned in 1994. At the time, she said, "there was a lot of mistrust about what Williamsburg was doing with black history." The reaction, she said, "takes an emotional toll."

Coleman said she was impressed with Fleet — whose four degrees at William & Mary include a master's degree in history — and his commitment to telling a more complete story.

"In many ways, these are things that are 30 years old, but they never really took off and the foundation never gave them any financial support," she said.

According to Carly Fiorina, a businessman and former Republican presidential candidate who ran for president in December 2020, the current direction also has strong board support. Several donors, Fiorina said, were initially "a little concerned" about itL.G.B.T.Q. historyprograms, which were announced in 2019. But they are based on evidence, Fiorina stressed.

Thomas Jefferson, she said, "is still there." But now "you're going to hear more stories," she said. "And you'll hear more stories because they're true."


"You covered it up on purpose"

"Truth" is a word often heard in Williamsburg, where translators - including one who portraysOconostota, an 18th-century Cherokee diplomat who came to Williamsburg in 1777 — regularly breaks character to explain the evidence behind their stories.

Audience research conducted by the Foundation, Fleet said, shows that showing off your work helps build trust.

"One of the most important things to do, especially in this era of polarization, is to let them know you know," he said.

OfFirst Baptist Churchthe project illustrates how Colonial Williamsburg's storytelling was built literally from the ground up and is rooted in discoveries – and rediscoveries – on the ground.

In 1953, the Foundation bought a mid-19th century church building from the congregation (which had a new building built on the other side of town)and knocked him down, as was common for buildings after 1800. In 1965 the site was paved and used as a parking lot.

In 1998, James Ingram, a church member working in Colonial Williamsburg, began taking portraitsGowan-pamphlet, a slave who was one of the congregation's first ministers. However, the demolished church remained a point of contention.


Fleet said he decided to start excavating and reconstructing in early March 2020, after meeting with Connie Matthews Harshaw, chairman of the church boardLet Freedom Ring Foundation.

Harshaw was blunt. "I said, 'You covered it up on purpose, you should reveal it on purpose,'" she recalled.

On a recent tour, Jack Gary, director of archeology, described the artifacts unearthed so far, including coins, buttons, doll fragments, and, at the entrance to the original structure, about 160 flat pins—probably dropped by worshipers as they tipped their hats. trim and scarves. "Here, it's the women that are visible," Gary said.


Last month, at a private meeting, researchers presented DNA testing of remains from some of the roughly 60 gravesuncoveredfar. The entire project, Fleet said, is "lineage-driven," asking permission every step of the way.

The Bray School project, in partnership with William & Mary, is similarly community led. Over the decades, Coleman said, black interpreters regularly spoke about the school and its students. But no one was sure what had happened to the building.


In 2021, there was suspicion that it had been moved to the William & Mary campus and incorporated into a different building.confirmed. The building was removed and moved to a site next to the church in Februarya great festive occasion.

Speeches from Governor Youngkin and other dignitaries followed, and as the modest two-story car drove home, a group of schoolchildrenholding plateswith the names of some of the nearly 400 black children, free and enslaved, who studied there.

"It was one of the most powerful examples of how you can make history in this way in a way that brings people together," Fleet said.

Jennifer Schuessler is a cultural journalist who covers intellectual life and the world of ideas. She lives in New York. @jennyschuessler

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