Williamsburg’s museums strive to tell a full, honest, and inclusive story of Virginia’s history. Experience the outstanding exhibits and special events that celebrate African American contributions to colonial Virginia.
The year-round historic interpretation programming of Colonial Williamsburg examines the real stories of enslaved and free Black people of the 18th century. The Nation Builder’s program allows guests of the museum to speak to a costumed historian who embodies the character of an early Virginian. The Nation Builders use their historical knowledge and in-depth understanding of their character to allow guests a unique way to interact with history. Be sure to check the museum’s schedule for the event “Nation Builders Discuss the Institution of Slavery,” in which two interpreters candidly discuss how they viewed the complicated tragedy of the institution.
Another historic interpretation moment not to be missed is “Across the Board.” In this presentation, interpreters portray a conversation between Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved manservant, Jupiter, over a game of chess. Thoughts are challenged as the game progresses, such as discussing the question, “are all men created equal?” The chess game becomes a metaphor for the power dynamics presented in the master/slave relationship.
The tour “Freedom’s Paradox” is a 60-minute walk through Randolph Yard, Market Square, and Palace Green to discuss America’s reliance on slavery during the revolutionary period. The juxtaposition of establishing American independence while defining the institution of slavery is examined through the eyes of free and enslaved members of the Randolph Household.
Jamestown Settlement’s interactive exhibits and dramatic films tell the full story of early Virginia, with information on Native American, English, and West Central African cultures converging in the 17th century. The film “1607: A Nation Takes Root” chronicles the arrival of the Virginia Company, interactions with native people, and the arrival of the first Africans in 1619. Period artifacts and expansive exhibits frame the story of the first Africans, with information on their life in Ndongo (Angola), life in the Virginia colony, development of the transatlantic slave trade, and the evolution of a new African-American culture.
African-American contributions to the American Revolution are often overlooked, but the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown does not shy away from the topic. Visitors will learn about the diverse American experience during this time, including the perspective of patriots and loyalists, women, and free and enslaved African Americans. For example, Billy Flora was an enslaved man who successfully spied on the British during the revolution, and his story is told in the museum’s film “Liberty Fever.”
Visit Jamestown Settlement on February 27, 2021 for a one-day program honoring the legacy of the first African woman mentioned by name in the historical record of Jamestown. The event will include a traditional African Libation, performances by Atumpan Dance Theatre, drumming and storytelling by Brandon Lee and Sylvia Tabb Lee, and a community discussion with Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Executive Director Christy Coleman.
Participate in History Unfolding
Archaeological investigation of a historic church founded by free and enslaved African Americans in the late 18th century is a unique offering of Colonial Williamsburg. The First Baptist Church of Williamsburg was first established in 1776 and represents one of the oldest Christian congregations established by African Americans in the country. The recently uncovered site, which can be viewed by Colonial Williamsburg visitors, stands to shape the narrative of how Black residents historically lived, worked, and worshipped. Read more on this historic site here.
Arts and Culture
The Virginia Musical Museum features the contributions of Virginia natives to the world of music, including many notable African American musicians. Personal items, pictures, and histories of famous Virginia natives such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ruth Brown, Pharrell Williams, Pearl Baily, Clarence Clemmons, Sissieretta Jones, and The Five Keys are displayed in their collection. For the month of February, the museum is offering 50% off of admission in celebration of Black History Month
And, the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are currently featuring an exhibit called “By African American Hands.” The museum’s galleries will feature items made by free and enslaved people, including trade items, paintings, and furniture. Another engaging exhibit features the work of Alabama quilter Susana Allen Hunter, including her piece Housetop Quilt. Visit this exhibit on select days to make a mini-quilt to take home as well.
*Please note that the photos in this story shown without masks were taken pre-pandemic.