THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Tuesday, October 11, 1994 TAG: 9410110283 SECTION: LOCAL PAGE: B01 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY PATRICK K. LACKEY, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: WILLIAMSBURG LENGTH: Long : 115 lines
A 1773 sale of four slaves was re-enacted Monday at Colonial Williamsburg while more than 2,000 watched in fascinated horror, many crying.
Several people protested, saying the event used historic pain for contemporary entertainment.
Three time periods existed at once on the porch of Wetherburn's Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street: The actors in the re-enactment were dressed in 18th century garb and spoke in Colonial accents; the civil rights protesters seemed out of the 1960s as they sang ``We Shall Overcome'' and one offered to be arrested; and the tourists, crowded shoulder to shoulder, wielded video cameras and complained loudly that more than a dozen reporters were blocking their view.
At least six television cameras recorded the event, Colonial Williamsburg's first inclusion of the sale of slaves in its annual Columbus Day estate auction. This year's sale has received national attention, including coverage on the ``Today'' show.
Bobbye Alexander, a retired math teacher from Williamsburg, arrived an hour early to get a good spot. Alexander, who is black, serves on the board of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her chapter supported the re-enactment.
Before the event began, Alexander said: ``I believe Colonial Williamsburg will first of all tell my history truthfully. When they opened the slave quarters, they told the truth fully, and I was very proud of that.''
Sylvia Shearin, 44, of Williamsburg, a friend of Alexander, added, ``In order to overcome this hurt and pain, it needs to be addressed.''
Brenda Muhammad, 45, of Virginia Beach stood near them, waiting to videotape the re-enactment to show to her 19-year-old son, Wazid, a Norfolk State University sophomore who couldn't attend.
``I don't see how we could take this part of history out of it,'' Muhammad said. ``It should be included.''
The slave sale was the brainchild of Colonial Williamsburg's department of African-American Interpretation and Presentations. All 13 workers in that department are black. Department director Christy Coleman said half of Williamsburg was black in 1773, and it would be wrong to leave blacks out of history.
As the sale was about to begin, the Rev. Curtis W. Harris, 70, of Hopewell, who had come to protest, announced that he had been jailed 13 times at civil rights demonstrations and was ready to be arrested again. When no one came to arrest him, he sat down, along with Milton A. Reid, 64, of Norfolk, who serves on the national board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. They sat throughout the sale on the tavern porch, as actors walked around them.
An hour before the event, Harris joined Jack Gravely, political action chair of the Virginia NAACP, and others in a meeting with Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Bob Wilburn.
They asked him to cancel the re-enactment, but he declined. He offered the protesters the chance to address the audience after the show, he said. ``They seemed to be intent on trying to stop it,'' he said.
The re-enactment, based on an actual estates sale conducted at Wetherburn's Tavern, was wrenching. The sale of the slaves was mixed in with the sale of estates. Slaves, after all, were property sold to settle debts or raise money.
The first slave sold was a laundress. She was purchased by a free black man, who was her husband. White bidders protested the sale, but the black man's letter of credit was in order.
Next came a carpenter with his tools. One of the bidders mentioned that he might keep the tools and resell the slave.
Finally came a husband and wife, first the husband. He went to a man named Taylor.
Then came his wife, 7 1/2 months pregnant, who was played by Coleman. She cried and pleaded with Taylor to buy her so she would not be separated from her husband. Others pleaded with Taylor to keep bidding higher.
But a man named Nelson proved the high bidder.
As the pregnant wife was led away, the horror of humans selling humans hit home.
Afterward, some people were too emotional to be interviewed.
Alexander, the retired math teacher, cried quietly as she said, ``I am a little emotional. I agree with my original statements. It told the truth, and I still say our history must be told.''
Harris and Reid, the two men who sat on the tavern porch, said afterward they still objected to the re-enactment. ``I think this is a show,'' Harris said. ``It is not real history.''
However, the Virginia NAACP's Gravely said he was moved by the re-enactment and was reconsidering his earlier criticisms. He said he had feared the slave sale would be trivialized, but he added, ``It seemed as if the actors brought that pain and suffering out. When you looked around the audience and saw the pain and agony on a lot of African-American faces, you knew something went on here. I think it has its place. It was very painful. It was informative. It was passionate.''
Wilburn, Colonial Williamsburg president, said afterward, ``Our whole purpose is to get a better understanding of these issues and have a discussion. I was pleased. People came here to learn, and they stayed and they discussed it. This is what would have occurred in the 18th century.''
Coleman stayed to answer questions from the audience, a mix of blacks and whites.
In an interview later, she denied that historic pain had been trivialized by the re-enactment.
``No,'' she said, ``it puts a face to what happened. People will remember what they see, what they feel, what they hear.'' ILLUSTRATION: Staff color photos by MARTIN SMITH-RODDEN
Colonial Williamsburg employee Christy Coleman played a pregnant
The slave portrayed by Coleman was separated from her husband after
he was sold to a different Colonial-era slave owner.
About 2,000 people attended, including protesters, who argued the
event used historical pain for modern entertainment.
KEYWORDS: COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG