Roots… of My Country

Townspeople of Williamsburg

Townspeople: Free and Otherwise

It was already the last week of June and I finally started to feel the heat of summer as I drove down the interstate into Virginia.  I stopped at the welcome center to stretch my legs and browsed the tourist pamphlets.   I’ve been to Virginia several times before because I have some relatives that I visited throughout my childhood.  Though, the patriot in me was excited to experience reenactments pertaining to the American Revolution at Colonial Williamsburg, I came to Virginia mainly to see my cousins and great aunt.   Since my cousin in Richmond was still on her trip (world travel is her hobby) and the other was way down in Virginia Beach, Williamsburg was slated as the first stop.

The sun was going down when I reached my destination at Walmart.  To my delight, it was close to all the gypsy friendly amenities needed, including gyms!  The idea of sponge bathing no longer appealed to me; I had grown spoiled.  Since truck stop showers can easily add up to a big expense, my strategy for grooming was to find gyms with decent facilities and a free trail period.  I limited my search to local gyms only and avoided large national chains since I haven’t yet decided which one to join.  I chose American Family Fitness because their facilities were very impressive, rivaling L.A. Fitness.

How does one sign up for a temporary pass without a local address or any intention to stay in town?  The answer is to simply have a good story as any novice grifter would! My story was that I recently moved to the area and currently living with a relative until I find a job and my own place.   This explains why I still have a Connecticut driver’s license and no place of employment.  I found the closest apartment complex and committed the street address to memory in order to fill out the visitor form and engage in any “small talk” if asked about where I live.   Was this honest?  No, but my showers were free, clean and accessible.  Hopefully, plugging them in this post will tip my Karmic scale back to a favorable balance.

I took a day to drive around Williamsburg and it’s a very beautiful place.  All the buildings I drove past were newly constructed and well built. It was as if most of the town was created as a planned community.  The people weren’t as friendly and open like the people in Baltimore or Lancaster, but they had a pleasant and welcoming vibe, which was enough for me. The evenings were comfortably warm with a comforting, caressing breeze.  I took half a business day and reserved a two-day pass to visit Colonial Williamsburg for the next day.

I made an effort to arrive early in the morning, since there were a lot of things to do and see.   After I picked up my pass (which was to be worn during my visit), I stopped to look at a scale model of the grounds, which was overwhelmingly huge.  I was glad that I opted to visit for two days instead of just one!  I glanced at my map/schedule and checked off all the available activities I wanted to do.   There was an orientation film, Williamsburg: the story of a Patriot that was starting in the visitor center theater in just a few minutes.  It was shot in the late 1950’s, starring a young and handsome Jack Lord.   The story was about Virginia’s role in America’s independence.  Though the film was dated (longest-running motion picture in history), it primed me for the experience of going back in history.

I left the theater and crossed over the bridge onto the Colonial grounds.  It was like stepping into another time.  There were townspeople in character of every social station of that age, ready to casually interact with visitors at their post or shoppe.  I visited farmers, local tradesmen, homes of nobility, and took a tour of the lavish Governor’s Palace.   Then, I popped into the gunsmith’s shop to see how guns, bullets and silverware were made.   The blacksmith demonstrated how he keeps the fire hot enough for melting iron.  His wife showed me her collection of molds for spoons, pots, and bullets.  Afterwards, I went to the town’s theater and watched a short period comedy and gained insight into the culture of the performing arts during that period.  A tour of the courthouse was open and I witnessed three very entertaining mock trails with some of the visitors playing the role of defendant and plaintiff!  It was all done in a humorous, tongue-in-cheek manner, but you left with an understanding of how everyday disputes were settled.

Governor's Palace

Governor’s Palace

Governor's Chef

Governor’s Chef

Cured Meats

Cured Meats

Ye Olde Gunsmith

Ye Olde Gunsmith

Instruments of Freedom

Instruments of Freedom

Parade to Town Square

Declaration of Independence Announcement

Declaration of Independence Announcement

The event I wanted to see most and above ALL was the Meeting with a Forefather reenactment, where a founding father performs a speech and interacts with the audience.  Washington, Jefferson, or maybe it will be Benjamin Franklin?  It is not known which forefather will arrive or what he would say.   Being what one would call a rabid “Constitutionalist”, I was thoroughly intrigued!  However, my schedule for the day was already full, so I decided I would save the talk for the next day, which started late afternoon. There was just so much to do and learn; it was nearly overwhelming! I began to have a strong sense of how we, as a people, worked together as a community to sow the revolutionary seeds of our nation.  I am proud to be an American.

Being in such an immersive environment can be an enriching and positive experience.  However, I found that engaging, enriching experiences also cut the other way.  The next morning, I attended an inspiring reenactment of the public reading of The Declaration of Independence.  Afterwards, I looked at my activity sheet and decided to take The Life of a Slave tour.  On the itinerary, it had a disclaimer that it was not suitable for small children.  “Curious.” I thought to myself. Though the slavery of my ancestors was endured in the West Indies and not in America, as a black person, I was compelled to check it out.  Right after this was scheduled to end, it would be time for the Meeting with a Forefather reenactment… Perfect! It wouldn’t start for a few hours, so I decided to attend some vaguely named short play that was about to start on an outdoor stage.  I had no idea what it was going to be about.

As the time drew near, people gathered on benches around the plain wooden stage under a sparse canopy of trees.  I sat in the front row.  Just as everyone settled in, out of nowhere, a rough looking white man in a wide hat and dirty white shirt, holding a rifle carried a young black woman by the arm onto the stage.  She wore a nice yet plain blue housedress covered by an apron… she was a house slave.   He takes her to her place and disdainfully unhands her before turning to leave.  “‘Scuse me, Sir!  When will my babies be commin’ here to be with me?” she desperately asks him with a slave accent.  “Soon.” the overseer says flatly and leaves.

Three other slaves, a woman and two men, whom she knows, are also brought on stage.  It’s apparent that they are in a holding cell to be sold on the auction block, off their plantation.  The mother’s two young boys will soon be joining her in the cell, also be sold.  Her friend, the other female slave, tries to ease her mind that there is hope someone would buy all three of them together and not break up her family.  The mother is still deathly frightened.

One of the male slaves, possessing a rebellious spirit, discouraged the soothsaying between the women and told the mother to accept the reality of what is about to take place… her children would most likely be sold away from her.  The friend starts to see his point of view.  She looks into the mother’s eyes and calmly says, “When your children get here, you have to talk to them.  I know it’s gonna be hard, but you got to let them know what’s gonna happen.”  To which the mother cries, “All they know is this plantation! All they know is me…” her voice trails off.  I saw the anguish streak across her face. “I know, but you got to be strong for your boys.  You’re gonna have to tell them calm and then say your good byes.  Have faith in God.” The friend advises.

The rebellious slave turns his attention to the other male in the cell and picks a fight with him because he failed to hold up his end of the bargain in an escape plot the night before, resulting in both of them being captured and put up for auction.   Just as the two men’s quarrel was about to reach the boiling point, the overseer returns.  He’s accompanied by his armed second to assist him in handling the slaves.  “All of y’all! It’s time to go!” the overseer barks.  Everyone lines up except the mother.  She jumps up, rushes to the front and asks him, “My babies… where are my babies?”  The overseer (annoyed and impatient) says, “What? We done sold them already!”  The mother gasps.  Struck down by shock and loss, she faints, causing her body to fall forward towards the overseer.  “Get up off of me!” he yells in disgust and pushes her away with his arm.  She tumbles off the stage, rolls on the grass and lands just inches from my feet.  Part of her dress rode up, exposing the bottom of her bloomers.  Her friend comes to her aid and helps her up as she sobs into her breast.

Everyone is lead out of the cell to their awaiting fate, in the distance no longer be seen.  The plain wooden stage is left bare. No formal closing, the play had ended as abruptly as it had started.  The audience fell silent and remained seated in bewilderment, trying to absorb what they have just witnessed.  I was left broken and wept.

After I collected myself, I roamed around Revolutionary City in a daze.  I visited some shops, but didn’t buy anything.  The time was getting close for my slave tour.  It was across the city and I didn’t want to walk, so I decided to use the free shuttle service.  I met a middle-aged black couple with their teenagers while waiting at the shuttle stop.  I’ve seen them around the day before.  We nodded at each other in acknowledgment as we passed by on a wooded path… as if we were in a secret club.  The same thing happens whenever I pass by another person with dreadlocks.  I wonder if white people do the same thing.

We struck up a conversation, telling the couple about the play I had just seen and the powerful impact it had.  “Nah, I’m not going to see that! I’m not going to work myself up and get angry around here!” the husband said in a half joking tone.  But, I knew he was serious at his core.  I couldn’t blame him for passing on such an emotionally raw exhibition.  I know, first hand, that the line between making peace with the past and being completely consumed with rage is a broken fence.

I made it just in time for the slave tour.  A group of people sat in an enclosed area under a tree.  There was a slave woman at the gate and I had shown her my pass to join the others.  Looking around, I saw that it was a diverse group of people, both black and white families of varying ages and classes. The benches we sat on were nothing more than logs on the ground in a circle formation.  In the center of that circle was a tall and robust field hand who was slowly pacing around and waiting for any remaining stragglers to arrive.  By his side, were a few tree stumps with a stack of papers and curious artifacts on top of them.  We waited patiently for his presentation to start.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen!” he said looking around his audience.  “I’m a an African-American historian and I’m here to give you a glimpse into the everyday life of American slaves.” He continued.  The field hand’s casual yet commanding presence had everyone perked up in their seat.   “It’s good that you’re all enjoying your time here at Colonial Williamsburg and experiencing some patriotic pride in our American heritage.”   Was he reading my mind?  He went on, “All of that is important, but there is another side to this story and that is slavery.”  He continued with his presentation, passing around copies of wanted posters for runaway slaves and Victorian photos of people with whip-scared backs.  Afterwards he passed around replicas of black iron tools used to keep people in bondage: shackles, locks, and spiked neck collars… used to “break” the most willful of Negroes.  The replicas were heavy, cold, and dreadful to hold in my hands.

Paper Clipping

Paper Clipping

Whip scars of a slave

Whip scars of a slave

Afterwards, he went on to explain the next segment of his presentation, “We will now begin the tour.  This will be a hands-on type of thing… How it was like to be a slave.  When slaves were called to work early in the morning, they weren’t treated with any type of respect.  They weren’t spoken to nicely.  It’s time to head out to work in the tobacco fields.”  Then something in the air quickly shifted.  “Now, git up… I says, GIT UP!” he shouted as the shackles made a clanking noise in his hand.  We were startled and all glanced at each other before quickly raising to our feet.

The field hand walked us out to the tobacco fields.  He assigned each of us a plant and ordered us to inspect under each leaf for any insects and eggs.   Whatever was found, we were to grind them up between our fingers. This was very important because they could destroy the leaves and each leaf was money for the master.  We had to be very careful not to break a leaf because that would warrant a whipping.  The same if the overseer checked our work and saw any bugs or eggs left behind.  Since the plants were short, we had to bend over to do our job… after a few minutes, it started to get very uncomfortable for my thighs and back.  And then it started to rain!  Everyone started to straighten up, intending to leave and take cover somewhere.  “Keep working! Slaves don’t get to sit out from the rain!” he ordered sternly.  We did what he said and kept tending to the tobacco… in the rain.  This went on for only fifteen or twenty minutes, but it felt much longer.  I couldn’t do this all day, everyday.  I just couldn’t.

Tobacco Fields

Explaining as it was

Explaining as it was

When we were done, he told us how Thomas Jefferson had a tobacco farm just like this one.  He went on to explain that Jefferson wrote in his journal that he had some profitable years and some lean years in selling his crops.  He bragged that whenever he had a lean year, he would easily recover his business losses by simply selling off one or two of his female slaves at a handsome profit.  We all just stood there, silent.

The field hand finally took us to the slave house, where slaves slept.  It seemed like a nice enough little cottage, until we were told that it usually housed up to 15 slaves!  He explained that it was usual for overseers to lock them all in at night so they wouldn’t escape or take revenge on their masters at the big house.

Slave House

Slave House

Hearth and root storage

Hearth and root storage

Stairs to the attic

Stairs to the attic

Sexual exploitation of female slaves by overseers and masters were a common thing.  I asked him where did these atrocious occurrences usually take place since there was no privacy in the house.  He explained that it was not uncommon for these rapes to be committed in the presence of other slaves in the house, including the children.  This was the fact from the tour that I have found most disturbing.

Everything came to a close and he shared some things for us to put in perspective.  “Our forefathers, though noble, were what we call today the 1%.  If you lived back then, chances are they wouldn’t even talk to you.  The average white during the revolutionary period was illiterate, working-class, and just a step or two above a slave.  They didn’t have a voice to rise up, either.  They were too busy trying to keep their six or seven children fed.  It’s about money!” he casually declared.  “The establishment found ways to keep both whites and blacks slaves in the South, into the 1950’s.  That’s what systems like sharecropping and Company stores were all about!”  Older people in the group (who may have remembered these times) nodded in agreement.  Understanding that most Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck and enslaved by debt, the past still rings true today.

In closing he continued, “Have pride in your country and honor our forefathers for the good that they have done, but never forget the truth and the contributions made by the slaves and others who have toiled and suffered. If not for them, these men wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything.  Black or white, know that you are descendants of survivors… they were some tough people!”

End of the line

End of the line

Afterwards, most of the people approached him to shake his hand in gratitude and to ask more questions.  Participating in this tour, we were broken down and built up again with a new perspective.  For reasons one may have deduced, I was no longer in the mood to attend the Meeting with a Forefather presentation and left… with my patriotism still intact, less my idealism.

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20 thoughts on “Roots… of My Country

  1. I just finished reading the account of your visit to Williamsburg, and am so glad to get your perspective. One line you wrote just blows me away: “I know, first hand, that the line between making peace with the past and being completely consumed with rage is a broken fence.”

    Although I am white and don’t know “first hand”, I feel the same way about our country’s treatment of slaves as well as Indians. I just can’t go there very often as it breaks my heart, after I’m consumed with rage!

    Thank you so much. I forwarded your post to a blogger/gypsy friend who just spent a week at Williamsburg.

    Martha Federle Gypsy

    • Howdy Martha, Thank you for passing along this post! Regarding broken fences, most of us have something in our past that we had to “choose” to forgive, but could easily be hurt by it all over again… and you wouldn’t need to be black to experience that! 😉

  2. During our two years living on the road, I found that by contacting the head of a city’s visitor’s bureau or whatever they might call them, we could come up with all sorts of free things. They gave us free lunches at various restaurants, temporary memberships to clubs and spas and even free tickets to events which were taking place while we were there.  I also found local cemeteries to be great places to park at night. Most of them have clean rest rooms and places near the back where you can park more or less out of sight. If someone does question your reason for being there, the logical answer is you are traveling around the country looking for grave markers of ancestors. 

    Jim Foreman

    ________________________________

  3. Wow, that made me cry… I had no idea of how things were back then.. I can’t even imagine having my kids sold away from me.. Thank you for sharing..

    • You’re welcome, Colleen. I’m glad you were moved by this post. Thankfully, those days are OVER! It gives me comfort to have faith that all of those broken and separated families are now reunited together with God.

  4. Impressive storytelling job. I lived in VA for five years but never made it to Williamsburg. Maybe I can plan a spring trip (maybe before the Southern weather furnace heats up) and check it out. Thanks for sharing your insights. Very moving and good for them to not gloss over the pain and injustice.

    • Thank you! I was expecting a Disneyfied version of History. I appreciate that they gave that part of our past justice as best they could.

  5. A well-written narrative. You made me feel like I was there. However, how can you label a film set in colonial times as “dated”? Colonial times are the same no matter what era a film set in that time is made.

  6. Loved your story. Your skill with the written word made me hang into every word. The last presentation you attended really was quite shocking I’m sure. But as you say it gave you a new perspective.

    Where to next?

  7. What a moving story. Williamsburg does try to tell the whole story without sugar coating it. It has been quite a few years since I’ve been to Williamsburg but I found it very informative in bringing us the reality of what life was like then. Slavery was a horrible institution enforced by violence and brutality. It must have been especially horrible for the women being sexual slaves as well as incredibly hard working conditions. One thing I found very illuminating is learning about how the 1%’ters lived and what they ate compared to the slaves. Indentured servitude was only slightly better in that there could be an end to the servitude after many years. The comparison is stark. How anyone could defend the institution is beyond me. That there were a few masters who weren’t complete criminals in their treatment of slaves does not excuse the institution. They were the minority. If you ever get up this way again, Mt Vernon is a very interesting place as well. Washington was considered to be an exceptionally fair and decent slave owner and yet, to hear of what his slaves endured is hard. It is our national shame.

    In answer to your question of whether white people knowingly nod to one another in passing, no we do not. We might greet with politeness but there is no slight acknowledgement of shared tribalism.

    • Thanks for addressing my question, Tesaje! I guess it would make sense since whites are the majority in most parts. Perhaps, visiting a country where they are the minority would change that around temporarily? LOL

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