African American Interpretation

Harvey Bakari discusses the rich history of black Americans in Williamsburg.


Lloyd Dobyns:  Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This is “Behind the Scenes,” where you’ll meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Harvey Bakari, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he’s manager of African American history interpretation.

Lloyd:  How long has that program been going on in Williamsburg?

Harvey Bakari:  Over 26 years.

Lloyd: Oh really? That long…for some reason I thought it was fairly new.

Harvey:  No.

Lloyd:  What part, let’s see, if you are doing colonial Williamsburg, it’s slavery –basically.

Harvey:  Basically. Yes.

Lloyd:  I have the feeling…don’t know if it’s true…that if I were black, I would not want to interpret a slave.

Harvey: Well, I think many people…many African Americans feel that way, but there’s others who – particularly those who do this – have to have a certain fortitude. Some feel like it’s a calling or it’s a mission, because you have to be able to withstand insults that you may receive from guests or from family members about portraying enslaved people; it’s not something that the average person would volunteer to do, but if someone has a sense of history, and a connection with history, and they have a mission within themselves where they feel they want to help enlighten people – the general public – about many of the misconceptions of their ancestors, then they would not have much of a problem putting on a costume and portraying an enslaved person or a free black.

Lloyd: Do you do any interpretation?

Harvey: Well, right now my major priority as the manager is managing our African American department. We have 14 historic interpreters in the department and two sites. And, we also do a walking tour. But I continue to do interpretation in the evening program that we have called “Remember Me When Freedom Comes,” which is about the experience of an African as he is captured and he is transported from his homeland to Virginia and how he has to deal with all the different things that are changing around him in the New World, as well as the people he’s around. 

Lloyd: What is a frequent question or the most frequent question you are asked by guests?

Harvey: One of the most frequent is if you may interpret someone, a particular slave owner, they’ll say, “Was he a good slave master, or a bad slave master?” That’s number one.

Another is sometimes when you are in your costumes, people will see you and they’ll say, “Slaves didn’t dress like that. You have shoes on.” Or, “You are dressed too good for a slave; I’ve never seen a picture of a slave dressed the way you’re dressed.” 

Those are some of the most popular ones, and then occasionally – this was the inspiration for writing the “Remember Me” program – was occasionally when I used to work at Carter’s Grove, and we’d give an interpretation about how Africans were brought from Africa to Virginia and worked on the slave quarters, the group would leave, and then a person would individually take me aside and say, “Harvey, um…ahem…do you think that the Africans were better off as slaves than to be in Africa?” 

This is a notion that a lot of people have. Some people will voice it. Some people will not, because the modern perception of Africa that you see on the news is disease and warfare. That’s primarily the only time you see Africa on the news, and then of course, in entertainment you see all the stereotypes of Tarzan and so forth.

So, apparently the vast majority of the public has negative misconceptions about Africa. So, my inspiration for writing the program was to use the story of an African who could tell them, “No, I come from a country in which we had everything we needed. We had all our food, we’d grow our food; we had our government; we had our religion. We did not need slavery.” And, so that’s what the program tries to do – to answer that one simple question. But, again, a lot of it has to do with misconceptions that people have about Africa.

Lloyd: You left out one. You said warfare, but you left out famine.

Harvey:  Yeah.

Lloyd: When I was in Europe in the 70s, there was a huge famine in Africa, and that stuck with me – that many people dying because they couldn’t get enough to eat, just shocks you. 

Harvey: Yes.

Lloyd: What would you like to do with the African American interpretation program?  If you could do anything you wanted, what would you do?

Harvey: If I could do anything I wanted…probably, we’re starting some of it right now, actually, which is advancing some of the most current research about African American history.  There’s been an explosion in research of African American history since about the mid 90s, particularly with the time period we’re dealing with.

I would also like to have more… a deeper and more substantial African component to what we do. I was involved in a museum partnership program a couple of years ago, where I had an exchange with another museum professional in Senegal, West Africa. He was the curator of the historical museum of Gorée – the famous “door of no return.” And so, I learned a lot from that particular exchange – as well as he did – about West African culture. So, eventually, I think making more of those types of connections. Also, in addition to looking at the African factor, so people understand, again, the importance of the history and culture that the Africans brought to the Americas that impacted and shaped the Americas.

In addition to that, because we deal with the American Revolution, I’d like to move us more into the direction of African Americans in the Revolution – that they were not just passive pawns in this particular event. This event – the American Revolution – laid the seeds eventually for African American freedom. African Americans, we have to struggle for that ourselves. As Frederick Douglass would say, it’s not going to be something that will be given to you, of course, it was just like with Moses before the Pharaoh, it wasn’t just given to them. But the seeds and the principles of the Constitution, of the founding fathers and eventually the separation of church and state – all of these basic principles that would be laid down by the founding fathers – would become the leverage that African Americans would use in order to make their case for freedom, and then eventually gain freedom.

So, sometimes the case had to be made, you know, like with Frederick Douglass being a powerful orator in the abolitionist movement, but sometimes it had to be made through bloodshed – the Haitian Rebellion, Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, and many others. So, again, there was still, even at that point, a non-violent movement and a violent movement, but all towards one aim, which would be ending slavery.

Lloyd:  Talking about Nat Turner and Prosser, Virginians in those days were terribly afraid of a slave uprising, or at least talked about it rather a lot. This is a psychological question. Do you think they were afraid of it, because they knew darn well that if they were enslaved, they would do something and uprise?

Harvey: Yes, they looked at history. There are many accounts where they looked at the history of the Greeks and Romans. They knew that at some point an enslaved group of people will rebel and uprise. They will not accept their condition. Even in the 18th century here in Virginia, there were several incidents that caused some concern amongst Virginians, and so there were several laws that were quite oppressive that would try to prevent any rebellion. But the interesting thing, too, is during the American Revolutionary War, I have yet to see one example of a slave, an enslaved person who killed his master in the process of trying to be free during the Revolutionary War. So, apparently, they were more interested in their freedom than they were in getting revenge and killing their masters. That was one of the propagandas that was put out, “You’d better be fearful, if your slaves run to the British, they might cut your throat in the night.”

But it didn’t happen. If they wanted freedom, freedom was most important. But, let the slave master live the way he wants to, but he or she was going to get his freedom during the revolutionary period.

Lloyd: Just get to Norfolk…

Harvey: Get to Norfolk, or later on, just follow the British wherever you see them. The British were like a freedom train. And, as Cornwallis traveled from the south all the way through Richmond into Williamsburg, he had what they called a baggage train, or some people may refer to them as refugees, of blacks who had followed him who were seeking their freedom.

Lloyd: Any idea how many?

Harvey: There’s been different estimates, even Thomas Jefferson said there were thousands of them. But when they came into Williamsburg, some of them were dressed in turbans and fine clothing. Now, you know who that fine clothing belonged to. It belonged to their masters when they were running away from the British, and they abandoned their property, and these enslaved people would take their masters’ clothes, and when they came to Williamsburg, they were throughout the town. And, that is when we believe that eight of Peyton Randolph’s – well, at that time Betty Randolph’s because Peyton was dead in 1781 – eight of the his slaves joined with the British as they marched to Yorktown.

Lloyd: What happened to them after Yorktown?

Harvey: One of them returned. Her name was Eve. She was eventually punished by Mistress Betty Randolph. She was given to one of her relatives, so that separated her from her son, from her family. The others, we don’t know what happened to them. They may have been successful; they could have left with the British; they could have left with the French, because after the siege of Yorktown… the French were our allies, but they, as I say with Lafayette, many of them believed in freedom, so many of the blacks they ran to the French. Washington said, “Well, okay, you need to give them back to us; they are our property.” But the French said “no, we’re taking them with us,” and some of those blacks ended up going to France with those French officers.

Lloyd: I had never heard that.

Harvey:  Oh yes. There are some who also went to Germany with the Hessians. That’s why I say that’s a story that we really need to explore and to expand – is African Americans in the Revolution – those who fought with the patriots as well as those who went with the British. Because it’s believed that even some of… I think her name was Mindy, I can’t remember the other name…that some of Patrick Henry’s slaves were amongst those who left and went to Nova Scotia.

And then, to make the story even more international, some of those blacks who left with the British and went to England, two things happened. Some of the whites in England were not comfortable with these blacks and these new arrivals, so eventually Sierra Leone was set up on the west coast of Africa, and there some of the blacks would be relocated in Africa.

But there were a few others who, if you were destitute in England, you were put in prison, they were going to send you to that new colony for prisoners, now that the United States was not the place they could send you any more, so some of those blacks ended up in Australia. 

Lloyd: Half way around the world.

Harvey: Yes. So, could you imagine, if you were a person, you were enslaved on someone’s plantation or working in someone’s house. You take the chance of joining the British, you join the British, the British lose the war, you get sent to England, you start to adjust to living in England, and you got involved in some crime, you are put in prison, and the next thing you know, you are put on another ship, and you are going to Australia. So, as historians do more and more research, we are finding more and more stories about how the American Revolution was contagious and how those who, whether they stayed here, or whether they went with the British, they just took this fruit of revolution, if you will, and spread it in different places around the world.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *