The Intersection of Heritage and History

By all accounts, it was not an ordinary October day as a crowd of about 2,000 people gathered in front of Wetherburn’s Tavern on Colonial Williamsburg’s Duke of Glaucester street.  There were protests.  There was singing (the civil rights era favorite, “We Shall Overcome”) as well as an old-fashioned “sit-in” (sort of).  One report even mentions a brief scuffle[1].  But these were the actions of a few, most in attendance were intent upon seeing the portrayal for themselves, standing shoulder to shoulder, some armed with video cameras.  The scenario was set in 1773, the settlement of an estate, and historical interpreters of the Colonial Williamsburg staff were re-enacting an auction where the estate’s property was being sold.  The controversy was over the type of property featured on the auction block…slaves.

The 1994 re-enactment of a slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg created a stir in the media, and, accordingly, with the public, but only a few weeks, a couple of months at the most.  Reviews were mixed, and once the sensationalism had played itself out the public moved on.  But the significance of the event and the reactions to it reverberate loudly even now as an example of the power of history, the power of heritage, and the effect created when the two converge in an emotionally charged environment.  This essay explores the history versus heritage concept and examines the roles of the historian and of society when emotions over historical truths (or beliefs) are running high.  The Colonial Williamsburg theme park is the best laboratory in America for this examination because it is there that history and heritage are constantly intermingling as interactions play out daily between the visiting public and the costumed staff portraying 18th century “personas.”

Good historians strive to understand and use the past as impartially as possible.  But the public’s concept of history, and its uses, can be very different.  This public, or popular, version of historical/traditional/folk memory can be encompassed under the umbrella-term, heritage.  Before analyzing how history and heritage interacted in the Colonial Williamsburg slave auction, I want to define the concept of “heritage.”

Few, I would argue, have even considered the differences between academic history practiced by full-time historians and heritage, the public history of, well, everyone else.  For most of the public heritage is just another term for our past, a synonym of history.  Any differences in what historians practice as history and what the layperson does with it, again I would argue, from the standpoint of the public’s perception simply manifest themselves in terms of detail (scholarly historians, presumably, operating at a higher standard of detail than the general public).  But a clarification of the terms “past,” “history,” and “heritage” helps to illustrate the differences.  In English, we tend to interchange these three terms pretty freely when referring to the same concept, but as stated by Keith Jenkins in Re-thinking History, the “past” is simply that which has already happened[2].  The “idea of history” is a “discourse about, but categorically different from, the past.”[3]  “History” is everything historians have produced, books, articles, films, in an attempt to study the past.[4]  In fact, Jenkins goes so far as to say that we don’t really study the past; we actually study that which is written about the past.[5]  Similarly, David Lowenthal makes the point that the “past” is unrecoverable, and that “history departs from the past in being an interpretation rather than replica: it is a view, not a copy, of what happened.”[6]

History and heritage are similar in that both use the past.  Each, according to David Lowenthal attempt to “show things as they were – bring the dead to life with imagined empathy, make the past more knowable, tie up loose ends, remove unsightly excrescences, offer images clearer than reality.”[7]  In this way they are inextricably bound, and Lowenthal makes it clear that history and heritage converge as much as they diverge.  What makes each distinct from the other is motive.  History’s goal is objectivity,

perhaps elusive, perhaps unattainable, and certainly arguable, as evidenced in Novick’s That Noble Dream.[8]  But all the while the target is to get the story as accurate as possible, and subjecting that story to the scrutiny of peer review.  Thus the historian’s aim, writes Lowenthal, remains true: “to explain through critical inquiry.”[9]  Heritage, on the other hand, aims to “celebrate and congratulate.”[10]  Heritage affirms identity, inculcates loyalty, stirs patriotism.  Heritage aims to justify our present and our future, explaining, finding precedent in, and apologizing for the past.

I first encountered this concept of heritage in an essay by David Lowenthal, “Dilemmas and Delights of Learning History,” from the book Knowing, Teaching, & Learning History.  In the essay, while explaining how relatively open the discipline of history is to amateur scholarship, Lowenthal writes the following: 


…because it is open to all and matters so passionately to so many, history is readily seized on as a weapon for this or that cause, this or that faith – it continually risks being turned into civics or heritage[11]

 It is a safe assumption that most people recognize that history can invoke passions and is “seized on as a weapon.”  Consider the recent conflicts in the Balkans; grievances over historical events are the fuel for fires of hatred burning between ethnic and religious groups in the region.  These grievances are over events ranging from five years ago to five hundred, as in the case of Serbs who recall with Alamo-esque fervor the crushing defeat they suffered at the hand of the Ottoman Turks in the battle of Kosovo-Polje in 1389.[12]  Claiming this to be the beginning of their persecution as Christian subjects of Muslim lords, Serb leaders in the early 1990s would have dismissed the fact that suggests the Ottomans were rather very tolerant of the practices of the religious minorities with in their empire.  Victimhood serves effectively in solidifying nationalism.[13]  Events like these are used as rallying points about which each group unifies its members in defiance of others, inflaming passions, creating conflict. In recognition of the power of these passions, when U.S. military personnel were sent as peacekeepers they were given orientation briefings prior to deployment to the Balkans that included history lessons about the region.  These briefings provided soldiers with a situational background, an understanding of the motivations of the conflicting parties, and appreciation for just how deep-seated these motivations are.  None of the soldiers, however, myself included, having both received and presented briefings on the Balkans, differentiated between that which is part of the historical record and that which the conflicting parties – Croat, Serb, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian – had perverted in for their own uses as heritage. 

My point here is this, the public rarely questions historical accuracy.  When it comes to heritage “plausibility is as good as the truth,” and revelations that time honored traditions are flawed or even wholly invented “leaves most people unfazed.”[14] U.S. peacekeepers did not discern between heritage belief and historical fact, what the combatants in the Balkans cited as reasons for fighting was what was deemed necessary for soldiers to understand.  And Serb leaders did not care what evidence suggested.  That prevailing belief among Serbs was that they had suffered for their religion at the hands of Muslims was all that mattered.  It served their purposes.  Similarly, Lowental points to Israel’s continued use of Masada as a preeminent symbol of national identity “though literary and material evidence totally discredit the myth of 1st-century mass suicide.”[15]  Historical truth does not matter; it is what Masada represents as a source of Israeli patriotism that “truly” makes it relevant.  “Visitors come to Masada today not for tangible evidence of the ancient legend but to experience a modern passion play of national rebirth.”[16]

It is faith, therefore, that is the crucial differentiator between history and heritage.  Historians use critical inquiry to question and examine the past. Heritage is believed.  Historians attempt impartiality and to overcome bias.  “Bias”, writes Lowenthal, “is the main point of heritage.”[17]  It cannot help being biased, heritage is by nature personal, it affirms our identity.  “Prejudiced pride in the past is not a sorry consequence of heritage,”[18] writes Lowenthal, “it is its essential purpose.”  Not only does heritage serve our pride, it serves our collective conscience.

By serving to validate our worth, heritage adjusts the past, alters it to reflect our present morals and ideologies.  We celebrate the glories of our past (factual or imagined) and omit, excuse or update that which is unpleasant about the past.  School mascots are changed to reflect current political correctness.  Language is altered to render neuter that which was formerly written in masculine tense, as in the case of the Maryland state motto, Fatti maschii, parole femine (manly deeds, womanly words), changed to the more socially acceptable “strong deeds, gentle words.”[19]  When the events of the past so offend our present sensibilities and cannot be omitted or adjusted, as with slavery in America, the Irish Potato Famine, and the Japanese invasion of Nan king, governments issue apologies or express remorse.  We project our modern morals upon our forefathers, not understanding that what is currently deemed unacceptable may not have been so regarded in the past.

These heritage adjustments make the past more appealing to the public in general, more “congenial” in Lowenthal’s words.  Thus heritage attempts to make the past relevant.  Instead of cold, objective, dispassionate history, heritage is alive.  History is the stuff of dusty archives, “old stuff that has nothing to do with us.”  In contrast, “heritage stands for all that is backward-looking and alive today and good.”[20]  And, just as important, heritage is regarded as something that is relevant.  Relevancy provided the impetus for educators to drop “formal history” in the early 1900s for social studies and civics, synonyms, notes Lowenthal, for patriotism.  He cites the Kansas Supreme Court ruling in 1927 that “history” was no longer a “record of events but an ‘inspirational’ account ‘revealing how the past still lives in us.’”[21]

Because heritage still lives, and is relevant to us all, we can experience rather than learn it.  As noted above, the visitors at Masada are not searching for “evidence” they are going there to “experience.”  Using another museum in Israel for an example, Lowenthal cites the guide, “we are not here to teach history, to do the teachers’ work.  Let them learn history at school.  We are here for the experience.”[22]  Experiencing something is far easier than studying it, and it fits well with the modern obsession with instant gratification.

So with heritage we celebrate the glory, accept the plausible, alter the unpleasant, apologize, omit, and experience.  We learn it in the civics-minded social studies of our grade school education.  We watch movies and television programs “based on true stories.”  We hear stories at home, visit monuments and museums, and observe holidays.  The more we learn our heritage, the more we practice it.  The more we are indoctrinated by heritage, the more we claim it as our own.

It is important to note that heritage is not inherently bad.  Nor is it “bad history.”  It is simply different from history in its use of the past.  Heritage serves to create group, clan, tribal, and national identity and to define those values a society holds sacred.  With out heritage there is no culture because nothing is valued.  Thus heritage serves a vital role in any society.  But it can be misused.  To return to the example of the Balkans, the Bosnia Country Handbook, printed in 1997 for soldiers serving in the peacekeeping mission, makes the following assessment:

In the Balkans, past history is closely linked with perceptions of the present and future.  Religious and cultural animosities have developed over centuries and are deeply ingrained among the various warring factions.  Violence has been, and will likely continue to be, prevalent.[23]

In fact, Croats and Serbs routinely recalled massacres committed when they warred against each other in World War II as justification for similar atrocities committed in 1991.  Deeply ingrained animosities “developed over centuries” are hard to overcome, it seems, despite the fact that for nearly fifty years Croats and Serbs lived side by side as members of a single nation.  But when the power that held Yugoslavia together waned, allegiance to group overrode allegiance to nation, and the country splintered.  When history and heritage, or the heritage of one group versus another, come into direct opposition, is conflict the natural result?  The Balkan conflict, as well as the unrest in Palestine, Northern Ireland, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, etc., etc., seem to point to this conclusion.  Different groups contesting over the same living space can use heritage in very dangerous ways.  Passionate heritage mongering can incense fanaticism, and pits competing group “histories” against one another in the attempt to justify “ancient” claims, or address “ancient” grievances.   America is a very diverse nation, comprised of countless groups identifying themselves by race, ethnic background, religion, region, sex, sexual orientation, state, and any combination of these of any other differentiator.  What happens when one version of heritage conflicts with another or with the historical record?  The slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg in 1994 provides and excellent example of what happens when this heritage/history conflict occurs. 

Established in the 1920’s, financed by John D. Rockefeller, Colonial Williamsburg claims to be the largest scale restoration project in America.  Covering over 170 acres the park consists of some 500 restored and reconstructed buildings based on archaeological and archival research, for example, the Governor’s Palace restoration is based upon the 1770 Botetourt inventory.  Time is frozen at the park, where it is perpetually the eve of the American Revolution and, according to the Colonial Williamsburg visitors’ guide, for “one crucial moment in history, becoming Americans was a choice.”  The town is a working anachronism where the restored homes are occupied and the shops and taverns are operated by some of the 3,500 people employed by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, including historians, archeologists, researchers, and historical interpreters.  It is the interpreters, assuming roles of 18th century “personas,” that the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation credits with making “this living history museum such a special experience.”  Again we encounter the concept of historicalexperience.  As a heritage center, providing visitors with the experience of life in the 18th century capital of Virginia, is the attraction:

Colonial citizens in period costumes have assumed specific personas of actual people who lived.  By conversing with these townspeople, you can learn the most about 18th century opinion and state of mind.  Keep an ear open as you encounter the “locals.”  The possibility of a free America is on the lips of everyone in town – and then again, you could overhear a bit of gossip involving a recent scandal.  You might even be lucky enough to meet Thomas Jefferson, Martha Washington or some other colonial celebrity.[24]

Experience, entertainment, a little excitement, and some history mixed in, this is Colonial Williamsburg’s formula where, as Lowenthal put it, “heritage is seen to merge in [a] cheerful conspiracy with the past.”[25]  It is an effective mix, demonstrated by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Financial Review.  The Foundation states that its long-term goal is to “maintain a condition of financial equilibrium in which revenues and expenditures are balanced, adequate funding is provided to maintain and preserve our facilities and collections, and the purchasing power of the endowment is maintained.”  For the year 2,000 the numbers were $193.8 million in total revenue, of which $148.5 million were operational revenue including admissions, hotels and restaurants, products, and real estate ($5.7 million).  These operating revenues were actually down from the previous year, but from 1996 to 2000 there has been a healthy increase in total revenue, about $35 million.[26]

As successful as it may seem, Colonial Williamsburg has not been with out its critics.  Some use the numbers quoted above are used to charge that entertainment and drawing large crowds, not history, is the real business of Colonial Williamsburg.  Many complain out that the Foundation has focused its restoration and interpretation on the lives of the white gentry class.  Social historians note that racial representation in Colonial Williamsburg is glaringly unbalanced, when the evidence, in fact, demonstrates that over half of the town’s 18th century population was comprised of free and enslaved blacks.  The demographics of visitors to the park appear to reflect the unbalanced interpretive representation.  Most visitors are white, college-educated, and earn above average incomes.  Blacks account for a mere 4 percent of the million annual visitors.[27]

In the area of black representation, Colonial Williamsburg has made efforts to correct the record.  In 1988 efforts to better reflect the black historical presence in the town were formalized with the creation of the Department of African-American Interpretation and Presentation (AAIP).  The result was additional attention to the role of blacks, especially slaves, in daily life in Colonial Williamsburg.  Tours of the homes of the white gentry included discussions about the slaves who served in those homes.  More black interpreters were added.  And there was the reconstruction of slave quarters at Carter’s Grove.[28]

Located eight miles south of Colonial Williamsburg, Carters Grove consists of four sites: a 17th century reconstruction called Wolstenholme Towne, the Carter’s Grove mansion, the Winthrop Rockefeller Archeological Museum, and the reconstructed slave quarter.  Consisting of a small court yard surrounded by two double houses, a single family dwelling, corn crib and pens for livestock, the reconstruction aims to depict the lives of Virginia slaves in the “last two decades before independence [of America],” and to “explore black and white relations in the American colonies, the rise of the slave system, the institutionalization of racism, and the development of African-American culture.”[29]

These were small victories to be sure, but as more programs were added depicting the lives blacks, free and slave, “the number of black visitors…slowly crept up.”[30]  The comments of Linda Redmond, a black woman from Forestville, Virginia, quoted in a 1999 article by Washington Post writer, Dan Eggen, illustrate the correlation:  “I used to think, ‘Why go to Williamsburg?  There’s nothing there about us.  Now there is, even if it’s not something I’m happy about or comfortable with.”[31]

Critics were unimpressed.  Mercedes Quintos of George Washington University, argues that despite the additional programs, “the average visitor to Colonial Williamsburg [did not] leave with an understanding of the pervasiveness of slavery in the colonial city’s society.”  Only by having black interpreters in costume at a number proportionally correct to colonial times, will visitors get a true sense of what the town actually looked like.  The few buildings reconstructed to portray slave life can not compete with the rest of the restoration, she maintains, they are simply “overwhelmed by the grand houses…which Colonial Williamsburg founders focused their preservation, restoration, and interpretive efforts.”  Add the fact that with Carter’s Grove situated eight miles away from the main attractions at Colonial Williamsburg, and again the majority of visitors do not get a complete “experience” of slave culture in the town.[32]

Much of the problem for Colonial Williamsburg is that having neglected the topic of slavery for so long, there is essentially fifty years or more of catching up to do.  The scarcity of slave artifacts, having been disregarded until the rise of social history in the 1960s and 1970s, further compounds the problem for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in providing better representation. 

The delicacy of the issue itself, the long slighted, highly politicized and emotionally charged nature of African-American history, amounts to a no-win catch 22 – “a heritage minefield” in Lowenthals words.  He points out that even as Colonial Williamsburg tries to correct the record to the satisfaction of social historians and black interpreters, political correctness applies its pressure from a conflicting point of view.  “In slave huts, rumpled facsimile blankets once suggested slaves stumbling out to labor at dawn had no time to tidy up.”  But to some groups “this pandered to stereotypes of blacks as slovenly and slothful, so the blankets are now neatly folded.”[33]  From one point of view Colonial Williamsburg had not done enough to accurately portray the presence of blacks and slavery in the town.  From another point of view they were telling the story wrong.  In to this minefield, in 1994 the Colonial Williamsburg Department of African American Interpretation and Presentation brazenly ran headfirst.

In the auction staged in 1994 by the AAIP in front of Wetherburn’s Tavern, four slaves were “sold.”  The first was a woman named Suki, a laundress who fetched a price of 20 pounds.  Next came a man named Billy, a carpenter, who, with his tools, was bought for 70 pounds.  The final two sales were the most dramatic; two house slaves, a man and a woman, she visibly pregnant, were sold to separate buyers.[34]  It was a deliberate tug at viewers’ emotions, no doubt to demonstrate the horrors and sorrow of slavery in America, and in doing so, give shock value to the historical fact that humans were sold as chattel – depicting a family sundered by sale.  There is no way to be sure of exactly what happened in an auction such as the one re-enacted by the AAIP.  Records document what property was sold, even noting the names of the slaves, but the words spoken by and reactions of the “personas” depicted in the auction were the interpretations of the Colonial Williamsburg staff.  That did not matter, as the effect was achieved.  In the words of one reporter covering the event, “you didn’t need textbooks or movies to understand a mother’s sorrow.”[35]

Reactions among the public were just as emotional even before the event occurred.  Once word of the AAIP’s plan to re-enact a slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg got out, leaders from the local chapter of the NAACP expressed outrage, denouncing the program before it was even seen.  Indignant over what, in their view, trivialized and exploited, “their history” for the purposes of entertainment, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference appealed to the president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, at the time Robert Wilburn, to cancel the re-enactment.[36]  Colonial Williamsburg stuck to their guns, so members from both the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived the day of the event to protest.  It wasn’t much as protests go, but it speaks volumes to the power of heritage.  The Rev. Curtis Harris of Hopewell, VA, and the Rev. Milton Reid of Norfolk, VA, sat on the steps of Wetherburn’s Tavern, an act of silent defiance reminiscent of a 1960’s “sit-in,” protesting an event they had not even seen, but concerning a subject they felt intimately passionate about.  “This is 1994,” Reid is quoted in the New York Times, “As far as we have come, to go back to this, for entertainment, is despicable and disgusting.  This is the kind of anguish we need not display.”   The new director of the AAIP, Christy Coleman, who was also portraying the young, pregnant wife in the auction, countered the protesters.  Addressing the political action chair of the NAACP, Jack Gravely, attending the event in protest, Coleman demanded that he and the protesters watch the re-enactment and then “judge with honest hearts and honest minds.”[37]

After the half-hour re-enactment was over, Rev. Harris remained unconvinced.  “I think this is a show,” a reporter quoted him.  “It is not real history.”[38]  Real history.  For Rev. Harris, the NAACP, and others this was not real history because it was their history, or more appropriately, their heritage, being told by someone else, and in a manner that they did not deem appropriate.  Because heritage is so personal we feel uniquely privileged to own it and the historical facts that may encompass that heritage.  Thus the protesters did not feel that Colonial Williamsburg was qualified to have access to their heritage.  Coleman defended Colonial Williamsburg, and her department.  The painful memory of slavery had not been trivialized for entertainment, she maintained, and Colonial Williamsburg was “eminently qualified to do this presentation.”[39]  The event, in her opinion, put “a face to what happened.  People will remember what they see, what they feel, what they hear.”[40] But in using emotion as dramatically as they did, the AAIP was pandering to heritage as much as they were depicting a historical interpretation.  The emotional impact, however, drove home the historical reality that people were sold as slaves.  Unlike Rev. Harris and the NAACP, however, most who attended the event, white and black, accepted the re-enactment as a “fair” and “accurate” presentation of “history.”

The Virginia chapter of the NAACP, for its part, remained critical.  Though Jack Gravely had recanted his objections after witnessing the re-enactment, calling it “passionate, moving and educational,” the organization made it clear that he was speaking only for himself.  The NAACP, in a statement issued the day after the slave auction, emphasized that it “remained concerned about slave auction portrayals and would discuss it further with officials of Colonial Williamsburg.”[41]  The question of who owns historical topics, especially when those topics clash with a particular group’s heritage, was certainly at issue here.  Who has the right to produce living history productions concerning slavery?  Had the NAACP had its way, there would not have been a slave auction portrayed at Colonial Williamsburg.  Mercedes Quintos suggests that the fact that Coleman and Colonial Williamsburg did not give in under the pressure demonstrates “the limits of respecting a groups concerns” when providing historical interpretation.[42]  Having seen the project through, the AAIP was able to overcome the initial objections and even change some minds, as in the case of Jack Gravely.  Quintos contrasted Colonial Williamsburg’s tenacity with the controversy over the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Enola Gay exhibit.  “Had the Smithsonian’s leadership possessed the same conviction of the soundness of their curator’s scholarship, they would have listened to the veterans’ groups but known at what point incorporating their views would have undermined the effectiveness of the exhibit.”[43] 

But the differences between the slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg and the Enola Gay exhibit in the Smithsonian are stark in terms of the risk each institution took in presenting a potentially controversial exhibit, and to whom each institution had to answer.  As soon as veterans’ groups were given access to draft scripts of the proposed Enola Gay exhibit, they cried foul.  Charging that exhibit focused more on the suffering of the Japanese after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, instead of acknowledging of sacrifice of Americans fighting in the defense of their country, veterans went to Congress.  Under Congressional pressure, the Smithsonian had no choice but to capitulate and scrap the planned exhibit (entitled, “The Final Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II”) for something more benign.[44]  The result was further controversy and protest from those who felt the “watered-down” exhibit omitted debates over using, and devastation resulting from, the atomic bomb.  In the end the Smithsonian looked foolish and feeble, unable to facilitate “real” scholarship.

Colonial Williamsburg is not governed by the United States Congress (beyond the normal sense), nor does it rely upon Congress for funding.  In taking the risk of portraying the slave auction, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation had only to answer to itself.  Ultimately, pursuing and portraying what they felt to be serious historical research and scholarship out weighed any risk of controversy.  The fact that black patronage at the time accounted for only 4 percent of the million plus visitors, no doubt, left the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation little to lose.  And controversy can actually serve to generate interest, so, unlike the Smithsonian, Colonial Williamsburg was in a better position to counter opposition.

Having countered the opposition, and tenaciously presenting the slave auction, in spite of the protest, Colonial Williamsburg seems to have come out the better.  Jonathan Yardley, a writer for the Virginia Pilot newspaper, criticized the NAACP for its premature condemnation.  “It is unfortunate that the NAACP felt obliged to intervene…it should be said that protesting in advance about a re-enactment that had been seen by no one except those involved in staging it serves no interests save those of the falsification or self-interested revision of history.”[45]  Those who witnessed the event, white and black, appeared to be moved by the portrayal and satisfied with its effectiveness.  “I am a little emotional” remarked a retired math teacher (who is black) to a reporter, “It told the truth, and I still say our history must be told.”[46]  For some blacks, the fact that Colonial Williamsburg was including their history in the tale of American colonial heritage was satisfying, even if it was uncomfortable.  This was in no small part due to how the AAIP presented the material.  Mercedes Quintos notes, “Colonial Williamsburg’s slave auction depicted a dehumanizing event,” but the staff ensured that the “personas” they were portraying “displayed admirable qualities of strength and dignity amidst the deepest of suffering.”[47]  The laundress, named Suki, who was the first to be sold, was “purchased” by her husband who was a freeman, a more upbeat outcome that could be contrasted with the separation of the husband and his pregnant wife.  Quintos maintains that the slave auction was successful because the AAIP were careful to “incorporate complexity and balance in their presentations.”  The portrayal, she says, did not shy away from “graphic evidence” but did not sensationalize the subject with depiction of overwhelming brutality.  “By interweaving aspects of tragedy with moments of celebration, exhibits [such as Carter’s Grove and the slave auction] more accurately portray the complexity of slavery.”[48] 

Evidence of Colonial Williamsburg’s confidence that they were successful in portraying the slave auction effectively is demonstrated in the Foundation president’s remarks following the event.  “Our whole purpose,” said Robert Wilburn, “is to get a better understanding of these issues and have a discussion.  I was pleased.  People came here to learn, and they stayed and they discussed it.”[49]  Faith in their success and a commitment to more accurately portraying blacks and the role of slavery in Colonial Williamsburg manifested itself in the Enslaving Virginia program initiated in 1999.  Interestingly, the NAACP endorsed this program, in sharp contrast with its quick condemnation of the slave auction in 1994.  King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the NAACP praised the program for it’s “extensive treatment of Colonial slavery.”[50]  In 1994, the slave auction was viewed as an “objectionable” program because, in their view, it trivialized the subject.  The NAACP turn around marks the most significant success of the Colonial Williamsburg slave auction re-enactment.  By gaining the approval of the group, in this case African-Americans attending the event, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in effect trumped the Virginia NAACP, which viewed itself as steward of its group heritage.  By endorsing the Enslaving Virginia project, the NAACP was acknowledging Colonial Williamsburg as a suitable steward of African-American heritage as well. 

Enslaving Virginia was the inauguration of a comprehensive approach to the inclusion of “the shameful history of human bondage into the fabric of storytelling at Colonial Williamsburg”[51] It is still heritage that is being told.  Interpretations stress the “richness and complexity of African-American culture” in the late 18th century.  The focus is on how blacks in general, and slaves specifically, adapted and overcame the trials and suffering a slave society presented.  Excitement is generated as slave patrols of three to four white men break up “unauthorized” gatherings of five or more slaves.  Visitors get swept up in the anachronism, urging “slaves” to run away or rise up against their white “masters,” as if what we perceive to be the sins of our past can be changed by “stepping back” into the past.  Historical interpreters stress the irony of the colonies wrestling with the concepts of liberty and freedom while slavery becomes more and more entrenched in the fabric of southern society.[52] 

The program has earned praise from many as a reflection of the challenges America is facing today.  “The program is about the contradiction between freedom and slavery in Colonial America,” explains Harvey Bakari, development director for the AAIP, “but it’s also about the contradictions of race in America today.”[53]  It also reflects the challenges faced by educators – in terms of what history we are to teach in schools and how.  Gary Nash, a history professor at UCLA and director of the National Center for History in the Schools, touched upon this question in 1994 while serving as co-chair for the National Council for History Standards.  “We don’t want to sugarcoat history,” he is quoted in a 1994 article.  “We have to look history in the face and admit our mistakes.  There are some dark chapters in our history.”  The “warts-and-all” approach to history is what makes the Enslaving Virginia program especially appealing to some social historians.  But, as Lowenthal points out, this is heritage-mongering after a fashion as well, a kind of heritage bashing.  Critics of “warts-and-all” presentation, however,  are quickly denounced as conservative, jingoistic, or “right-wing,” denoting an elitist, narrow mindset.  Nash’s remarks about criticisms of the standards developed by the National Center for History in the Schools bear this out: “all of the flak is coming from the far right.  They’re upset because their little game has been spoiled.  I view history as intellectual property, and the ownership has changed.”[54]

The ownership of African-American heritage has not changed, however.  As the story of blacks in the 18th century town is told more and more, members of the Colonial Williamsburg staff have noted the differences in reactions falling along racial lines.  While every one tends to hiss at the slave patrols, “whites tend to view the depictions as relics of the past, while blacks draw comparisons with the present.”  Remarks about how blacks gathering on a street corner can draw suspicions from police today are typical from African-American patrons.  “I experienced a lot of what’s going on right here in front of us,” commented one 68-year-old woman, referring to a slave patrols treatment of colonial “slaves.”  She went on to explain that she grew up in the Jim Crow South where white attitude toward blacks was much the same.[55]

For some black visitors, the re-enactments strike a cord that is too personal.  After all, heritage is personal by definition.  Colonial Williamsburg staff point out that it is not uncommon for some black visitors to walk away from the more graphic scenes.  Others have taken issue with portrayals of free blacks who themselves owned slaves, no doubt a particularly troubling detail of historical fact that smacks in the face of heritage.  But on the whole, Colonial Williamsburg’s inclusion of the African-American presence at the park serves to affirm, which is the ultimate success for a heritage center.  One visitor announced as she walked out of the program, “I was proud.  This country was built upon the backs of my people, and we survived and we flourished.”   Another commented that, “as blacks, I’ve always felt like we had to justify ourselves as Americans, as if we hadn’t contributed anything.  This [Colonial Williamsburg] shows that we helped make this country what it is from the very beginning.”[56]

Aside from affirmation and instilling patriotism and self worth for African-Americans who, in the words of one teacher, “are starved for connections with their heritage and culture,”[57] some suggest the reason for Colonial Williamsburg’ success with the subject of slavery, thus far, is the increased interest in the subject in general.  Slavery is now talked about and analyzed more openly.  Ira Berlin, author of Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, suggests that there is more to the increased dialogue over slavery than mere consideration of the past.  “There is a recognition that American racism was founded in slavery,” he writes, and there is a general, if unspoken “understanding that any attempt to address race in the present must also address slavery in the past.”  Thus slavery becomes synonymous with race.  It is a means or “an entry point” for discussions about race.  Berlin credits Colonial Williamsburg for entering that discussion by conducting the slave auction, in spite of the objections of the NAACP.  By overcoming the heated emotions associated with the topic, anger, bitterness, sorrow, pain, humiliation, the slave auction opened the door for increased presentation of slavery at Colonial Williamsburg, which, according to Berlin, “has since become routine, and the results [of which] have been astounding.”  Astounding in the way the Enslaving Virginia program has engaged and been engaged by visitors, as noted above, going beyond discussing the topic with interpreters and attempting to save “slaves” and confront “masters.” [58]

So in terms of impact on society and by effectively treating an extremely sensitive topic, Colonial Williamsburg’s slave auction has proven to be a success.  The increase attendance by blacks and other minorities is a testament to how members of the African-American community as a heritage group have accepted the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s, and particularly the department of African-American Interpretation and Presentation’s, portrayal of black history at the park.  But Berlin offers this caution:

“Viewing the present though the lenses of the past is useful, necessary, and perhaps inevitable.  But it is also dangerous.  If the re-enactment in Williamsburg and the new interest in slavery show how the past can illuminate, they also show how the differences between the past and present can become blurred rather than clarified.”[59]

Clarification is the historian’s bailiwick.  Here is where those who have studied and researched must step in to ensure that the differences between the past and present, and our perceptions of the past from the standpoint of heritage do not become blurred.  The danger Berlin cautions against is the danger of “experiencing,” David Lownethal issues the same warning.  “Empathetic role-play and reenactment feed the illusion that heritage experience suffices to know the past.” As appealing as it may be to right past wrongs by “stepping back” in to the past, we cannot, and the temptation has to be dispelled by the historian.  As Berlin notes, the topic of slavery may very well be the “entry point” for discussions on race for Americans today.  But it is just that, and entry point.  Understanding the past as accurately as possible can clarify how certain things came to be.  Today’s problems, however, can only be addressed in the here and now. 

The goal the historian sets for himself in being objective, or at least impartial, serves as the counter to the conviction and passion associated with heritage.  That heritage is vital cannot be denied, the comments noted above of African-American visitors drawing a sense of pride from the exhibits and re-enactments they had just experienced is proof. But as the pursuer of truth about the past, it is the historian who is most qualified to be the guide that prevents the public from getting lost in the “heritage minefield.”  David Lowenthal writes that, “history needs heritage to carry conviction.”[60]  So rather than compete with heritage, historians need to recognize it for what it does and for what it is worth, all the while sifting through the clutter of convictions to present the more reasonable truth.  Heritage can celebrate what we perceive ourselves to be, but history will ultimately show how it is we got that way in the first place

[1] New York Times News Service, “’Slave Auction’ Divides Crowd in Williamsburg,” The Baltimore Sun, October 11, 1994.

[2] Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History (London: Routledge, 1991), 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 112

[7] Ibid., 168

[8] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[9] Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade, 168.

[10] Ibid.

[11] David Lowenthal, “Dilemmas and Delights of Learning History,” in Knowing, Teaching, & Learning History, ed. Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg (New York: NYU Press, 2000),  64.

[12] U.S. Department of Defense, Bosnia Country Handbook, DOD-2630-BK-002-97, February 1997, 4-2.

[13] Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade, 74-78.

[14] Ibid., 167.

[15] Ibid., 164.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 122.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 150.

[20] Christopher Chippindale, “Putting the ‘H’ in Stonehenge,” History Today, 43 (April 1993), 5-8; quoted in David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 126.

[21] Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade, 125.

[22] Ibid., 164.

[23] U.S. Department of Defense, Bosnia Country Handbook, DOD-2630-BK-002-97, February 1997, 4-1.

[24] From the Colonial Williamsburg internet site, What to See and Do,

[25] Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade, 169.

[26] From the Colonial Williamsburg internet site, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation 2000 Annual Report,

[27] Stephanie Soughton, “At the Helm of History: Colonial Williamsburg is no Mickey Mouse Production, Thanks to the Effort of its President, Robert Wilburn,” Virginia Pilot, (31 October 1994), Business Weekly, p.10.

[28] Mercedes J. Quintos, “Museum Presentations of Slavery: The Problems of Evidence and the Challenge of Representation,” Marie Malaro Excellence in Research and Writing Award Winner: Spring 1999,,html., 2.

[29] From the Colonial Williamsburg internet site, Slave Quarters at Carter’s Grove,

[30] Stephanie Soughton, “At the Helm of History: Colonial Williamsburg is no Mickey Mouse Production, Thanks to the Effort of its President, Robert Wilburn,” Virginia Pilot, 31 October 1994, Business Weekly, p.10.

[31] Dan Eggen, “In Williamsburg, the Painful Reality of Slavery,” Washington Post, (7 July 1999), A.1.

[32] Mercedes J. Quintos, “Museum Presentations of Slavery: The Problems of Evidence and the Challenge of Representation,” Marie Malaro Excellence in Research and Writing Award Winner: Spring 1999,,html., 2.

[33] Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade, 154.

[34] Patrick Lackey, “’Our History Must Be Told’\The Re-enactment of a Slave Auction at Colonial Williamsburg Sparked Emotions and Debate,” Virginia Pilot, (11 October 1994),  sec B, p. 1.

[35] Marc Tibbs, Painful Echoes of Past, and Present, Surface at Mock Slave Auction,” Virginia Pilot, (11 October 1994), sec. B, p. 1.

[36]Stephanie Soughton, “At the Helm of History: Colonial Williamsburg is no Mickey Mouse Production, Thanks to the Effort of its President, Robert Wilburn,” Virginia Pilot, (31 October 1994), Business Weekly, p.10.

[37]New York Times News Service, “’Slave Auction’ Divides Crowd in Williamsburg,” The Baltimore Sun, (October 11, 1994).

[38] Patrick Lackey, “’Our History Must Be Told’\The Re-enactment of a Slave Auction at Colonial Williamsburg Sparked Emotions and Debate,” Virginia Pilot, (11 October 1994),  sec B, p. 1.

[39] Leef Smith, “Williamsburg Slave Auction Riles Virginia NAACP,” The Washington Post, (8 October 1994) Metro, 1; quoted in Mercedes J. Quintos, “Museum Presentations of Slavery: The Problems of Evidence and the Challenge of Representation,” Marie Malaro Excellence in Research and Writing Award Winner: Spring 1999,,html., 6.

[40] Patrick Lackey, “’Our History Must Be Told’\The Re-enactment of a Slave Auction at Colonial Williamsburg Sparked Emotions and Debate,” Virginia Pilot, (11 October 1994),  sec B, p. 1.

[41] Associated Press, “The NAACP Disavows Official’s Views of Reenactment,” Virginia Pilot, (12 October 1994), sec B, p. 5.

[42] Quintos, “Museum Presentations of Slavery,” 7.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Eugene L. Meyer and Jacqueline Trescott, “Smithsonian Scuttles Exhibit,” The Washington Post, (31 January 1995) A.1.

[45] Jonathan Yardley, “Some Slavery Truth,” Virginia Pilot, (12 October, 1994), sec. B, p. 5.

[46] Lackey, “Our History Must Be Told,” B1.

[47] Quintos, “Museum Presentations of Slavery,” 7.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Lackey, “Our History Must Be Told,” B1.

[50] Eggen, “In Williamsburg, the Painful Reality of Slavery,”  A.1

[51] Ibid.

[52] From the Colonial Williamsburg internet site, Slave Quarters at Carter’s Grove,

[53]Eggen, “In Williamsburg, the Painful Reality of Slavery,”  A.1

[54] Marc Tibbs, “History Class Must Teach America Has Ugly Side Too,” Virginia Pilot, (1 November 1994) sec. B, p. 1.

[55] Eggen, “In Williamsburg, the Painful Reality of Slavery,”  A.1

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ira Berlin, Overcome By Slavery,” New York Times, (13 July 2001)

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid., 170.


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