Recalling African American Interpretation

Rex Ellis reflects on 25 years of interpreting the African American experience in the colonial period.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on  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 Rex Ellis, who is vice president of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Historic Area. Black History month is observed in February, and I’m kind of curious, when did African American interpretation start in Williamsburg?

Rex Ellis
:   Well, I would imagine it depends upon whom you talk to. There are some folk who would say it started back when Jim Short was in charge of research and that he had an interest in African American history and that interest revolved around him and revolved around a guy by the name of Edward Riley, who was also in research during that period of time. They decided they wanted to do something with African American history, and they started with voice repeaters n the Brush Everard House and voice repeaters in the George Wythe kitchen. So, there were two kitchens, one that was in the rear of the Brush Everard House and another kitchen that was a sort of multi-purpose building that was in the rear of the George Wythe House, and they actually had voice repeaters there back in the sixties

Lloyd: What is a voice repeater?

Rex:  Well, a voice repeater is this thing that you --- it’s a recording device--- I’m sure Chuck [the sound engineer] knows about this -- that is a box. You go into the kitchen area there, and there was a box there, and you pushed the button, and this person, this recording comes on and tells you about this space you are actually seeing. That was one of the first attempts that Colonial Williamsburg made to begin to talk about slavery and blacks that were a part of the sort of colonial experience.

Lloyd:  Okay, let me try again, when did African American interpretation start with African Americans?

Rex:  Ahhh!  That began, I would say, around 1979. There was a program here that began with character interpretation -- what was it called back then? -- living history -- and the whole idea was to begin teach history through this new theatrical method called living history. They also decided they wanted to try to begin talking about African American history under the auspices of this living history program. And so there were characters -- white characters -- that were designed and created, and worked with research department to sort of put together [a program], and they also brought in some African Americans who did the same thing from Hampton University. I was teaching at Hampton University at the time. They had a young man come -- his name was Harvey Credle -- he said he wanted some of our thereat majors to audition to play the parts of slaves at Colonial Williamsburg. I was teaching in the speech communications and theater arts department back at Hampton University, and when he came -- you don’t come to a predominantly black college and make a statement like that unless you are, you know, five beers short of a six-pack -- or your cause is just. Well we had to find out which one it was.    So he began saying he did not want any Stepin Fetchits; he did not want any Butterfly McQueens, but he did want to begin talking about the other half of the population in Williamsburg during the 18th century. Well, I grew up in Williamsburg from the time I was a year old until I graduated from high school, Williamsburg was my home. My next door neighbor was supervisor of housekeeping at the Williamsburg Motor Lodge. My best friend’s father was a chef at the Williamsburg Inn. I had people who I knew all around Williamsburg who worked at [Colonial] Williamsburg, but it was never a place to learn about history, it was always a place to go so that you could work, so you could get a part-time job or a full-time job after school or during school. So when this guy comes and says he wants some of our theater majors to audition to play the parts of slaves at Colonial Williamsburg, and that he wanted to do something positive, and that the other half the population of Williamsburg was black during the 18th century, I said, “I grew up in Williamsburg, and I didn’t knew that, so if you want to do something positive for black folk in Williamsburg, I will audition for you,” fool that I was!

Lloyd:   (Laughs)

Rex: I auditioned, and then once I auditioned, we then began the sort of living history program that was here, and it was the first that I am aware of that African Americans began actually focusing on and interpreting slavery at Colonial Williamsburg. Now I did not say it was the first time that African Americans were in costume and a part of the interpretive programming at Colonial Williamsburg, I said it was the first time that African Americans actually talked about slavery, and there is a whole interesting story behind that, that I am not going to go into, because I know you have other questions you want to ask me. But I find it fascinating that when the first vice president who came here whose name was Dennis O’Toole who wanted to begin talking about African American history when he came on board. He asked, “Where is the black history?” He was told “Go to the Governor’s Palace, and look at the kitchen at the Governor’s Palace,” and he said “okay,” and he said, “Also, I want you to go to the Wythe House and go into the kitchen and look at the interpretation of the kitchen.” He goes to the Governor’s Palace, and he sees a black woman in the Governor’s Palace talking about candied violets, talking about clockjacks, and talking about things that relate to cooking and the sort of methodology of cooking in the 18th century. He goes into the Wythe House, and he sees a black woman in there talking about George Wythe and his diet and the menus for the food and all of the rest of it, talking about cooking -- never said a word about black history, neither did the one as a matter of fact, when he asked the one in the Governor’s Palace a question about black history, she got a little surly with him.So, he goes back to the person who said for him to go and look at this, and he said, “Didn’t you say that if I could go to these places I could hear about black history?”  He said, “Yeah,” he said, “well did you go to the Palace kitchen?”He said, “Yeah.”He said, “Well, did you go to the Wythe House?”He said, “Yeah.”He said, “Did you see those black folk there?”He said, “Yeah.”He said, “Well that was it!”Now here’s the point. African Americans were hired by Colonial Williamsburg in those days to do two things -- to do specific work that needed to be done, but to also create an ambiance that everyone knew was a part of the demographics of the 18th century. But when you went to talk to them, they were cooks who happened to be black, bookbinders who happened to be black, printers who happened to be black. And so the whole ideology was not around interpreting African American history, if anything it was around avoiding interpreting African American history.So here comes Rex along with his students!

Lloyd: (Chuckles)

Rex: ... and others who had no idea about this history, saying not only do I want you to ask me about African American history and slavery, not only do I have something to say about it, but I am going to play a character that portrays a slave. Oh Lord, they had folk all around the community thinking it was the worst thing since sliced bread that Colonial Williamsburg could do. There were all kinds of rumors about Colonial Williamsburg trying to bring back slavery times. So there was a very interesting dynamic during those early years that was a result of trying to do something that Colonial Williamsburg had never done, trying to do it under a methodology, under a delivery system that was controversial in and of itself, and that was theatrical and then using that theatrical methodology to interpret one of the most controversial things that you could during the 18th century, and that was slavery. It is under that beginning that I began to cut my teeth!
Lloyd:  Which was when?

Rex:  1979.

Lloyd: I was wondering. It had to be a while ago, because it is not as controversial now as it used to be in most of the South. It began to evolve, I will take it. When did things get better from the interpreting history point of view?

Rex: In 1979 we began to so a series of small vignettes, programs that were done on a part-time basis generally during the summer when there was a peak time. In 1984, I was brought from Hampton University, and instead of working here part time, I began working here full time. It was something that I did once the school year was over, but then around 1984, they invited me to come and to be a sort of full-time part of the Williamsburg experience. As we began doing these black history programs, they were very, very well received by guests, and guests began writing in to the president and to the vice presidents saying things like, “it’s about time Colonial Williamsburg began to acknowledge slavery and began to talk about it in a comprehensive responsible way.”And it was those letters and that sort of supportive feedback that we got from our guests that convinced, I think, the senior management that they needed to do more, so they brought me in full time and we began to then do programming full time, not just during the summer but year round. And every year since1984 we came on full time, 1986 was when we got a grant from AT&T to help us with our programming, 1988 almost every two years we would add either new programs, either daytime programs or evening programs. We did a lot with school groups; we did a lot with outreach programs where we would actually go into school systems. We had an outreach program that offered we would go to a classroom in a middle school, in an elementary school, in a high school -- generally it was a middle school --“ and we would actually do a day program that would be an assembly program, and then we would go into the classroom, and we’d begin teaching about what we had talked about in the assembly program. If it was a math class, or if it was an English class, or if it was a history class, we’d try to connect the subject matter to some aspect of the 18th century. We did that for I guess about two years, or maybe three years, and much of that first year we did it, we charged them, the second year we did it, they could get us for free if they then signed on for a field trip to Williamsburg so they could get the other side. We knew we were focusing on African American history, and it was only a small part of the colonial story. So for several years, as a matter of fact, when I left Williamsburg to go to the Smithsonian, they continued to do these outreach programs, so it was more than two or three years as I think about it. But it was our way of trying to say look, Colonial Williamsburg is doing something different. They’re not sort of the stodgy conservative kind of organization that you know about. They now want to begin talking about women; they now want to begin talking about African Americans; they now want to begin talking about the marginalized community in responsible ways that they had not done before. But because of that whole history, what we then had to do was to go out and reach out to audiences that had decided there wasn’t anything in Colonial Williamsburg for them. We went to those audiences, especially in a sort of regional area here and decided we needed to in some way redefine in their minds what Colonial Williamsburg had to offer. I think it was those early programs, I think it was those early outreach efforts, I think it was those early kinds of designing of programs that we did that stood us in very, very good stead. And now, after 25 years, we have programs – a diversity of programs daytime and evening, we have a diversity of types of programs; we are doing electronic field trips; we are doing a great number of things, we are continuing our research, so we are now. I don’t know anyone who does the kind of, the scope of programming or the concentration in the colonial period in the way that we do it here at Colonial Williamsburg. So after 25 years, I think we have grown a great deal. God knows there are many things that we can do better, and we must continue to grow in that way.But I think we represent one of the few museums that have been talking about this subject as long as they have, and I think we have become a repository for scholars, for fellows, for students of the colonial period, and for other museums who are seeking to do the same things we are in terms of interpreting this most difficult topic of slavery.

Lloyd:   In the 25 years, this suddenly occurred to me, you were pushing the envelope, you were doing new things, you were trying new things – [did] anything go wrong?

Rex:  (Laughs heartily.)  You don’t have enough time for me to talk about that. All I can say to you is I’ve never been as high spiritually as I have working at Colonial Williamsburg when things have really gone well. And I have never been as low. If I was a man who drinks, I’d be an alcoholic. Just by virtue of some of the challenges that we’ve had over the years, I went home and I had to drink a coke. Because there was, not just from the white community, from the black community, there was a very real backlash of people, not just in the community but all around,“ who did not want this subject talked about. They did not want it discussed.  Here is one contingent not wanting it discussed for their own reason, another contingent -- a white contingent over here -- not wanting it discussed for their reasons. And we’re sitting in the middle somewhere saying, “Guys this is important. This is American history.”   But because there were no other museums doing it; there were no other institutions that were doing it to the scope that we were, we felt like we were just people who were alienated from both of the communities that we purported to represent. And, so, yes, to answer your question, there were challenges.

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

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