A New Story

African American interpretation

Historian Cary Carson describes creating a narrative framework for Colonial Williamsburg that made room for the stories of black Virginians.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I'm Harmony Hunter. My guest today is Cary Carson, Colonial Williamsburg's former Vice President for Research. Cary, thanks for being with us.

Cary Carson: My pleasure.

Harmony: You are retired now, but you were at Colonial Williamsburg for the inception of African American programming in the Historic Area. What was your role in the development of those programs?

Cary: I came here in 1976, and Colonial Williamsburg at that point had no African American program to speak of. There had been some research on aspects of it, a historian here at Colonial Williamsburg, Thad Tate, had written a book about the negro in 18th-century Williamsburg which was, and remains, a primary source for interpreters who were touching – but only touching – on the subject in 1976.

Shortly after I came, a number of us felt that the African American story, the whole issue of racism and slavery needed to find a central place in the bigger story we were telling.

But that's actually getting ahead of the story. I think to understand how African American history found a place, eventually, finally, in the interpretive storyline here at Colonial Williamsburg, you have to appreciate what was happening to museums and happening to American history in the 1960s and 1970s. Museums then, and of course even today, are really collections of collections. Colonial Williamsburg had a collection of historical buildings, it had a collection of gardens, it had collections of antiques, it had a collection of, for example, tradesmen: people trained to make things, manufacture things in the way they had been 250 years ago.

Anyway, for my generation, museums were something, or we felt they ought to be, something more than an agglomeration of collections. There ought to be one overarching story: what we came to call "The Williamsburg Story." That moved the whole focus of interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg away from these little smaller areas, areas that were dominated by very talented specialists – everything from craftsmen to curators to an approach that started with some big narrative and said the curators, tradesmen, specialists in gardens and all, have a role in contributing to that story, but what is that story?

It was only when we began defining that story, which we now call "Becoming Americans." It was only when we created that, if you will, master narrative, that we could find a place for everybody in the 18th century who was part of that story. So, what we did was, we made room for not just African Americans, but we made room for a lot of people who were part of this community, this town, two and a half centuries ago, but didn't figure, or didn't figure very prominently, in the story that was being told.

Harmony: Why do you suppose African Americans were not part of the story from the outset? You can't look at Jamestown, or even Williamsburg, without slaves and African Americans being a part of that story.

Cary: You say you can't look at Williamsburg's story or Jamestown's story and not see that – well that's through our eyes. It was easy to do 30 years ago because as they thought then, black people were hard to find in the historical record. They left no artifacts, no buildings that were as prominent, in fact, were even identified as such 30 years ago. They seemed to be invisible.

There didn't seem to be the tools that museums use to tell stories. There were no artifacts. When they turned to historians, historians could scrape together what we thought was there, what historians thought was there at the time. It wasn't much.

So instead, we shifted the story. I said we looked for a large narrative that would cover everything that visitors encountered here. What was that narrative? Well it had to do with the making of an 18th-century community. Starting in the late '70s, we drew it into a bigger story about the way in which two – broadly speaking – two immigrant peoples: English and Europeans, on the one hand, and people from West Africa came here or were brought here forcibly but thrown together in a place called Williamsburg, Virginia.

Somehow those various communities made lives for themselves. We felt that was the story that we wanted to tell to 20th century, late 20th century visitors, because in fact we believed and still do that is still the story that connects not just with immigrants, but frankly we are all, Americans are all very mobile people. We're always uprooting ourselves and going someplace else. So we felt that was the connection between visitors today and the story we should be telling about all those newcomers who came to Virginia and to Williamsburg 250 years ago.

When we began telling that story, we had a place, indeed, we had, you could call it a vacuum, a missing piece, a big missing piece about all those people who, as visitors, kept asking, "Who did the work around here?" Well of course whites and blacks did work, but blacks did a lot of the very heaviest kind of work.

Harmony: What did you find as you attempted to start to bring that story out?

Cary: Our biggest job to begin with was to assure whites and blacks that slavery, or put it this way, the history of enslaved black people was not only a story of their degradation. That thousands, millions of slaves, found and made lives for themselves within this system which was enforced upon them. Lives with their own families, lives that involved in some cases learning and perfecting skills, talents.

We said we need to bring those aspects of the story into the African American experience that we present while not at the same time sweeping under the rug the really horrible parts of the slavery story, which certainly are were and need to be prominent in the telling of that.

At the same time, we had the challenge of proving to everybody that there really were ways to tell an authentic story about enslaved blacks, and some free blacks, but most were enslaved and there was a way to go back to the records that historians had used but had not used in ways that could draw out that information, and much of the research here and across the country and around the world in the last generation has mined those sources for what we now have as a rich telling of that story, including in cases that we thought we never could: the stories of individual blacks.

Harmony: As you reflect back over 30 years of African American programming, which you were here at the birth of, what do you see as still needing to be done? What would you like to see developed further?

Cary: It is interesting how even in that 30-year period, it has gone through various transformations. In the beginning, as I've suggested, we were mainly interested in putting African Americans back into the community they were part of and assuring visitors as well as our interpreters that they indeed had a story to tell.

I think to answer your question, I think you'd have to ask where have slave studies gone today? Not just here, but by academic historians who of course are also exploring the frontiers of this. I suppose now for right now, the focus is on the enslaved family itself, the ways in which people who found themselves owned and operated by somebody else nevertheless created emotional space, physical space for themselves to develop as full human beings who could love, hate, all the kinds of the full range of emotional responses that we know all human beings, whatever circumstances they find themselves in, yearn to fulfill. That is, I know, is an area that Colonial Williamsburg's interpreters are already exploring. I expect we'll see more of that in the immediate future.

I think one of the things that Colonial Williamsburg has always insisted on is telling a comprehensive and inclusive American history story. There were times over this last 30 years, and there still are of course African Americans today who see the African American story as one of separation of rebellion – and it was that as well.

But there are two parts to the African American label. There's the African part, the black part, and then there is this story that Colonial Williamsburg has always insisted on, that that story must be told in terms of the inclusion the involvement, the deep involvement of black people in the larger American story. Colonial Williamsburg has never swerved from that path and I hope that it always will tell an honest story but at the same time tell an optimistic story about essentially the working together of Americans of all kinds from all backgrounds.

Harmony: Cary, thanks so much for being with us today.

Cary: My pleasure, I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

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