Hidden History: Colonial Williamsburg celebrates 40 years of black interpretation

Black History Month

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — Stepping into Colonial Williamsburg is like stepping back in time for visitors and employees alike. It’s the opportunity to learn more about America’s foundation, and that’s why interpreter Stephen Seals loves doing it every day.

“I jump out of bed and say ‘I get to go to work with a smile,'” Seals said. “I believe I get to make our country better every day by sharing our history. That’s what keeps us coming back every day. I’m educating and helping people understand their history and how it connects with today.”

Seals has worked for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for almost 12 years. But at one time, you wouldn’t be able to see other black interpreters like Seals walking along the cobblestone sidewalks.

That all changed in the mid-20th century.

“It was actually back in the 50s when our historians did work on the population of Williamsburg back in the 18th century, and they were shocked to learn 52 percent of the population here in Williamsburg was of African descent and mostly enslaved,” Seals said.

After learning this, they knew that they had to include black interpreters.

“You can’t tell the full story, the whole story, if you don’t put in as many perspectives of those people here at the time as you can. We are celebrating over 40 years of figuring out how to bring that [to] guests, how to bring that to the community, how to bring that to the citizens of this country. So, we’ve been doing a lot of celebrating and remembering,” Seals said.

But it wasn’t until 1979 when black interpreters made their debut at Colonial Williamsburg, according to Seals, when Rex Ellis from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) came to help tell the story.

In honor of all the contributions and stories told, an exhibit has been set up in the Raleigh Tavern titled “Revealing the Priceless.”

It includes 126 photos of those who have helped tell the story including Rex Ellis and actor, Jesse Williams, as well as the names of 1,800 slaves who lived in Williamsburg between 1763 and 1783.

“They may have been sold for pounds or dollars, but their true worth is priceless to this country,” Seals said.

The exhibit also highlights different initiatives and programs held throughout the years, including the controversial 1994 estate sale.

Sales says its the first time the video has been shown on display.

“We wanted to show it publically. We wanted to show where these interpretations were going, what we were trying to do, how we were trying to tell the story,” he said.

The exhibit will be on display through the end of February before it is moved to the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center.

Seals says having black interpreters and telling the real history of a diverse America is needed. He hopes visitors leave understanding that they can come to Colonial Williamsburg to think and ask hard questions about history — something that’s crucial in understanding today’s society.

“If there’s a place where we should be able as Americans to sit down, talk about our history, and truly understand how we’re feeling, it should be museums. We at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation try to make sure this is a place where you can come and have those conversations,” he said.

To learn more about the exhibit, click here.

Make sure you tune in this Friday at 5:30 p.m. on WAVY-TV 10 to find out more about Seals’ portrayal of James Armistead Lafayette, a double spy who is credited with helping America win the Revolutionary War.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Don't Miss

WAVY Twitter Widget

WAVY Facebook