Carolyn Wilson on Interpreting an American Lady

Carolyn Wilson talks about her passion for what it means to be an American citizen and her love for interpreting Betty Randolph in Colonial Williamsburgs Historic Area.


Interpreting an American Lady

Carolyn Wilson talks about her passion for what it means to be an American citizen and her love for interpreting Betty Randolph in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present.  This stuff is new, and you won’t hear it anyplace else. This is “Behind the Scenes,” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Carolyn Wilson, and at Colonial Williamsburg, she’s Betty Randolph.

Lloyd: I am a Virginian, and every Virginian knows the Randolphs. It’s like knowing the Lees. You know… they’re famous. Why would Betty Randolph’s husband have been named Peyton?

Carolyn Wilson: It’s a family name. It’s actually a southern thing…well, it’s carried through the south, I should say. It comes from England, of course…but you name your child as a way to carry the family name on.  You name him with first name of what your last name is in the family. Peyton is a last name.  It’s the same thing as his elder brother’s first name is Beverly, that was his mother’s last name.

Lloyd: That must have been somewhat embarrassing.

Carolyn: Do you know how complicated it is to trace these people? Because they used the same names over and over because they want to carry forth the family names!  After Peyton Randolph dies, there’s about at least five Peyton Randolphs now – in Williamsburg – people named after Peyton Randolph.

I had somebody come to the house, to the Randolph house visiting, and they were from Michigan. After visiting and just chatting, this lady was starting to leave, and she turned to me and she said “My name is Carter Henry Randolph – that’s about as Virginian as you can get.” 

And, in character, I said “Madame, we most certainly must be related, you should come by sometime and we shall discuss it.” A name like Carter Henry Randolph does not pop out of the blue, and you’ll find how many there actually are. It still continues today.

Lloyd: Talking about the lady from Michigan, what do people ask you…no, what do people ask Betty Randolph?

Carolyn: (Laughs) They ask her, “With 27 slaves in the household, what do you do all day?” And anybody would understand that. Most people do their own things. And, in a way, they ask it in a very condescending nature, in that “You must sit on your butt, and do absolutely nothing.” And, that’s the truth of it.

But I turn the tables on them, and you can when you are in character. You can be hoity. You can in a way be insulted and not let them take offense, in that, “As the mistress of a household, with 27 slaves, it’s a wonder I have any time on my hands. I have to look after each and every one of them to make sure they are all about their business as they should. After all, they are much like children. You must see that they are given good instruction, that they carry out that instruction, they do as they ought when they ought, and they do it in the way you like it in the time it takes them to do it as they should.”

Lloyd: You would be a terrible boss (mocks a shriek).

Carolyn: (Laughs) That’s awful, I think I am a nice mistress.

Lloyd: Well…but the answers you give me…have you ever been asked one that just completely stumped you? Just – wham…don’t know the answer to that.

Carolyn: Um-hmm.

Lloyd: What was it?

Carolyn: It was by a little boy about five or six years old. Everybody was leaving, and his mom sort of herded him back to me. He looked up at me, and he said, “Do you think it is right to own slaves?” 

My heart dropped. I’m a mom…I…in character, how on earth am I going to answer that, and sleep at night? Betty Randolph firmly believes in slavery. That’s an institution that she is not responsible for. That’s not her fault. That’s the way things are. And he stumped me. I looked up at his mom begging for help because I didn’t want to do the wrong thing, and I said, “Well, lad, I can tell you that there are 27 people that my husband owns in this household, and they are put to good use, that they serve their purpose, that perhaps if I were to give them their own freedom, they wouldn’t know what to do with it, but then again, I can’t say that I would want to be in their position.” 

It was not the best answer. I’ve thought about that ever since that kid left, because I couldn’t…

Lloyd: There is no best answer, because the truth of the matter is your character believed in it. You don’t. So, you’re stuck.

There’s not much actually known about Betty Randolph, including her date of birth. I was trying to look that up… didn’t have one. Is part of your material – if we can call it that – do you get to invent it?

Carolyn: (Laughs heartily) Yes, I do! (Laughs and laughs) Made up history – which is great for me, because I am not a historian by nature. This is something that’s a hobby that’s gone completely out of control – and I love it. But history will only tell you so much. History is not a science. You can find a fact, and then years later come across another document that contradicts that fact. And, you have to fill in the gap, otherwise you’re not credible. Yeah…I’ve made a lot up.

Lloyd: what? I’m really…

Carolyn:  Well, I have to have a birth date, so I gave Elizabeth Randolph my husband’s, so I can remember it. But poetic license also has some rules to go with it, I suppose. I need to be historically accurate. I can’t make Betty Randolph… say…perhaps somebody like Lucy Ludwell – she’s got the reputation of being crazy. We know that Betty Randolph had a reputation in town that was a good one, because there’s nothing to say anything otherwise. Her role would demand that she be somebody who is capable, somebody who is in command of her household, somebody who is respected, somebody who is proper – so I have to be that. But, I also throw Carolyn in, because that’s what makes it fun.

When I first started, and I was trying to weave my own self into this character, it was kind of the neatest complement…a lady who was visiting, and I had a parlor full, and we were just having a grand time, and she said, “Do you really think Mrs. Randolph would be this – what did she say – charming and interesting?” [And I thought] “Ooo, I think she’s talking about me!”  But I think a lady in the 18th century would have to be able to conduct a conversation. She has to be the one…as a matter of fact, the lady sits at the head of a table. She’s the one who dictates the conversation, because if it starts offending somebody, she has to – in a very delicate way – change the topic. If the conversation is excluding someone, she has to redirect it to bring in the guests. That’s what a lady does.

Lloyd: Let’s get back to Carolyn Wilson. You said this was a hobby that had gone too far, or something like that.

Carolyn: (Laughs) I suppose…

Lloyd:  Why did you start? What possessed you to say, “I want to be Betty Randolph?”

Carolyn:  (Thoughtfully) I am a refugee from the rat race. I had a job…like a lot of other people have. It was a good job. Secure. It paid well…took care of my family, and I hated it.

Lloyd: Oh…gosh.

Carolyn: …And I wanted to find something that made me feel like I was contributing something, and I wanted to do it here, because I absolutely love this place. If you haven’t been to Colonial Williamsburg, you don’t understand what goes on here. You think of a theme park; you think of maybe a garden…and it’s not; it’s a city; it’s a living place where people actually look and talk and live like they did in the 18th century. And, the magic of it is, if your interpreter is a good one – and you know, we’ve got ’em – that person will bring you in to a time 200 years ago, and you won’t even know it, until you leave it. And when I have the opportunity to touch people, to help them make a connection to understand so that their history, their country’s history means something to them, then I’ve done something right, because that is what happened to me.

We just suffered a very sad loss of one of our long-time interpreters, a man by the name of Carl Webb; and he was the one interpreter that I remembered as I visited here. I remember his tour very succinctly because he talked from his heart. He was a British citizen who came here and became an American citizen.  He told his own story. He told everyone why this country is so great. He told everyone why he wanted to be here – not just in Williamsburg but in the United States of America, as a citizen to enjoy all the possibilities here. He touched me, and I like to try to do that.  

Lloyd: Do you have any acting background?

Carolyn: Yeah, a little…

Lloyd: What?

Carolyn:  High School (laughs).

Lloyd: Okay…

Carolyn: I wasn’t all that good. I’ll tell you what gave me some good acting skills was working in the business world. I was in sales, and if you can stand in front of a conference room full of men in white shirts and ties looking at you as if you’ve got three heads, and convince them that what you have to sell is the most important thing in the world for them – and mean it sincerely – that’s acting.

Lloyd: Yeah, they say in television, if you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made.

Carolyn: And I don’t mean that as a slam to anyone, but any person who’s ever been in   sales, or actually ever worked in a corporate environment understands, you’ve got to play the game, you’ve got to put the face on…just as well…here, from time to time, just as anybody who works with the public understands, you’ll come across someone who’s a bit difficult, and you have to manage that properly to defuse any situation.

Lloyd:  Okay. Why are you attracted to the 18th century?

Carolyn:  It’s beautiful, the way it’s portrayed here. The lifestyle I live is a rich white woman. Well, in the 18th century, that is not a bad role to play. It would be better if you were a man, because you had a lot more possibilities, but it’s not a tough one. If I were to immerse myself in the life of …say, a woman whose husband is a farmer, a whole passel of kids…perhaps your husband has died and you are living out in the country in a one- or two-room house with maybe a dirt floor and shutters on the window scraping out a living, it’s not that pretty then.

But because I think the beauty of it all, the way it’s portrayed here to begin with grabs you, and then once you understand that the society is so much greater than that two to three percent of the upper class, you start to understand the richness of it, so you are drawn in by what the senses offer you, but your intellect will take you far beyond that, and there is no end…there’s absolutely no end to what you can study, what you can explore…

Children – when they come here to visit – they all have different interests. You know what kids are like. Some absolutely live and breathe history. I had a six-year-old child, as he left the house, turned to me and he said, “Thank you so much. I very much enjoyed myself,” and I said, “Well lad you are welcome to come back any time.” And he just brightened up, and he said, “Really? I’d really like that.” 

And then you get other kids, say, a teenager, middle school, will not show any emotion whatsoever absolutely looking like they’d rather be anywhere else on the planet. And, you find a way to “get ’em.” Maybe it’s not by talking about history, maybe it’s by talking about people – because no matter where you go, people don’t change that much.

There are tales in the 18th century that will absolutely turn your conception of everything about it upside down. There’s always something in the newspaper. The newspaper is one of the funniest things to read. Oh my goodness, there’s stories in there about someone claiming that there’s a two-ton cow that’s – what is it – eight yards long and six yards wide that was slaughtered. That cow would be bigger than this room. This is the Virginia Gazette not the National Enquirer, but it was in there. The tale of when Edward Longshanks was dug up – in the 18th century, for some reason they liked digging up people – a king, no less, so they are obviously not showing him such great honor, but they talk about the corpse, how it was hardly decomposed at all, and that he was six-foot, eight inches tall. That’s going to catch a kid. That look you are giving me is exactly what I get [from a teenager] “Nuh-uh…” But that is absolutely documented as the truth. That is why they called him “Longshanks.”

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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