So, Tuesday was a really long day, so this is going to be split into multiple pieces. Normally when I go to Williamsburg, I just wander around fairly aimlessly for a couple days, I see what I see, eat a ridiculous amount of food, and that’s that. Very unstructured. My brother had been down there the week before and bright me the program schedule for the week I’d be there and it was absolutely stuffed with programs and events – to he point where I had to set up a spreadsheet to figure out what I needed tickets for, and that I wasn’t picking overlapping events. Nerdy, but worth it.
So, off at a very-early-for-vacation-hour to the Great Hopes Plantation, which is a relatively new installation. It is based on an actual typical “middling” Virginia plantation that was located a county or two away from Williamsburg. (And also typical of many Virginia plantations at the time, small, not particularly wealthy owners, maybe 10 slaves, surviving season to season.). It’s interesting from the farming aspects of it (like Claude Moore Farm up in McLean, the main cash crop is tobacco) but also where Williamsburg’s African American program really shines.
Going to Williamsburg as a kid a rather long time ago (we won’t actually count the years,) slavery just wasn’t mentioned. I don’t know if someone thought it wouldn’t be appropriate, or would turn people away, or they hadn’t figured out how to present it, or they just were afraid of doing a terrible job on it. (I did have one employee tell me that there was a period of time where they did acknowledge it with a one line, “There are things in out history we are not proud of…” and that was the extent of it.)
The last time I went to Williamsburg in the Spring of 2010, I went to the Raldolph House tour/program and instantly realized, “Well, damn, this is new!” The Randolph House had been open since 1968, but that was the first time I’d seen any house tour that actually focused on the lives of slaves in domestic service. It was fascinating, informative, and heartbreaking – all the things it needed to be to get the point across that the “happy slave” or “benevolent slave owner” narratives are crap. So I had high expectations that Great Hopes Plantation would be right at that level, and I was not disappointed.
The title of the program was “A Holiday Wish” and without giving the entire thing away, it was about what one particular slave at this plantation desperately wanted for Christmas. Going in I wondered if they would get into the massive destruction of families in the slave system. By the end, I was on the verge of tears, sniffling loudly and thinking, “Yup, nailed it.” The young lady doing the interpretation of Molly (who was a slave at the original Great Hopes Plantation) did an amazing job of conveying the utter heartbreak and destruction that the slave system caused (beyond just the fact that the entire institution just sucked) and it seemed to move a lot of people. It seemed to me that the vast majority of the folks there were hardly clueless to the familial destruction due to slavery, but seeing it expressed in a real person right in front of them made it far more real than just lines in even the best history book. (I talked to someone else later In he day who had seen it and she expressed exactly what I had been thinking, “You know, but you don’t know.”) There were more than a few teary-eyed folks at the end, and a spontaneous hug-line formed when she finished. The real Molly may have died 200 years ago, but the Molly in front of us was real and didn’t deserve her lot or pain in any way shape or form. We couldn’t fix it, but we could acknowledge the hurt. (Probably some “Sorry my ancestors were assholes with no concept of humanity” in there too.)
It wasn’t preachy, it wasn’t over-sanitized, it was just good. A few people seemed a bit uncomfortable with it – I’m not sure if they expected some “happy slave” narrative, or just couldn’t process it. But I would put it in the “successful programs” column to be sure. Afterwards I had a chance to talk to the young woman playing Molly and about how the programs keep getting better and hitting on more and more “non-rich-white-guy” aspects of life at the time (and the total absence of slavery in my visits when I was little) and she agreed that it was definitely getting better. Then she started talking about how she really wanted to see the Indian narratives become included as well. And the stories of the poor whites in the area. “And the Irish convicts! Everyone has a story and we should tell them all!”
As long as Williamsburg has people like “Molly” working there, it’s just going to keep getting better.