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Sharing Their Side of the Story

As you may already know, Colonial Williamsburg is a living history site that shares stories from America’s beginnings through the eyes of historical interpreters—that is, 21st-century museum professionals who assume the identities of real 18th-century people, including actual colonists, free and enslaved people, and Native Americans. And they take their roles seriously by sharing their side of the story.

This means not only skillfully adapting the trades (think blacksmiths and apothecaries) and wearing the clothing (think corsets and petticoats) of this era, but sharing authentic perspectives of the people who lived through America’s first chapters. This means addressing topics like racism and enslavement.

Recently, National Geographic published an article on Colonial Williamsburg’s historical interpreters and others around the country and the world. Though some perform as third-person reenactors, others have amassed such a tremendous amount of knowledge through research that they almost never step out of character. This is known as assuming a “first-person identity.” Here’s a section from the National Geographic article:

“For example, Stephen Seals plays enslaved American Revolution spy James Armistead Lafayette at Colonial Williamsburg.

These time-traveling guides and sites share a mission to educate visitors about history by immersing them in people, places, and activities. But institutions that employ—and try to honestly depict—people of color still have a long way to go.”

Something we must all confront are the pieces of history that have been glossed over or simply erased by books and historical sites, museums and institutions. Thankfully—finally—things are changing, and historical interpreters are a part of that change. As painful as it is to confront the brutality of slavery and all that followed, to be left out of history or to minimize the truth is unthinkable. 

When you visit Colonial Williamsburg, take the time to meet the people whose names you did not see in your history books, but who shaped the world just as much as the names you do recognize. Get to know their lives, their vulnerabilities and their legacies. Allowing others to share their side of the story helps us all to better understand one another and feel more connected, from the beginning of America’s history through today.

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