To Reenact or Not to Reenact? for Some, Williamsburg Slave Auction Shows Discomfort of Humiliating Past

By Phillip, Mary-Christine | Black Issues in Higher Education, November 3, 1994 | Go to article overview

To Reenact or Not to Reenact? for Some, Williamsburg Slave Auction Shows Discomfort of Humiliating Past


Phillip, Mary-Christine, Black Issues in Higher Education


To Reenact Or Not To Reenact? For Some, Williamsburg Slave Auction. Shows Discomfort of Humiliating Past

by Mary-Christine Phillip

Slavery is a topic that makes America uncomfortable. This country, founded on principles of freedom and equality, has never come to terms with the fundamental conflict between its ideals and the racial subjugation of Black Africans for profit.

Partly because it was so brutal, and partly because many of America's present-day citizens have inherited the crippling effects of its legacy, American slavery remains suspended in unwritten volumes of history.

Despite the fact that some hypocrisies of the system have been unmasked, that most of the Founding Fathers -- including George Washington, "father of his country," the firebrand Patrick Henry ("Give me liberty or give me death") and Thomas Jefferson, whose preamble to the Declaration of Independence declared that "All men are created equal," -- were slaveholders on a large scale, the nation still lacks a comprehensive edition that pulls together what has been learned about slavery in America to date.

"The scholarship on slavery is not there," says Nell Irvin Painter, the Edwards professor of American History at Princeton University. Painter, who is working on a biography of Sojourner Truth, says: "When you consider there are hundreds of books on Abraham Lincoln and three studies on the domestic slave trade, you know something is missing."

The matter is about Blacks and whites, but the issue is not Black and white. It's a complicated, complex matter which has received little serious analysis. The passage of time has not healed all.

Talk to Blacks and the pain and rage of the injustice are just beneath the surface. Talk to whites, and there are expressions of uneasiness, even apologies. People just don't like to talk about slavery, much less watch it portrayed on stage. So when one of the nation's living history museums in Colonial Williamsburg, VA staged a slave auction recently, it caused a furor.

An Auction in Williamsburg

On an overcast October afternoon in Colonial Williamsburg, an auctioneer in 18th-century costume prepared to start the bidding.

The property: Three tracts of land and four slaves. They were for sale because the master of the house had died. Daniel, a house slave in green velvet breeches and black tricornered hat, was sold for 62 pounds. His pregnant wife, Lucy, clutched her stomach and sobbed after being sold to a different master than her husband. Sukie, a laundress, went for 42 pounds sterling to her free husband, and Billy, a carpenter with tools, went for 70 pounds.

Before the sale, Christy Coleman, director of the Colonial Williamsburg African American Department and organizer of the auction, announced: "We came here to teach the history of our mothers and grandmothers so that every one of you will never forget what happened to them."

As she spoke, a red sign was hosited above the crowd. One end held by a white hand, the other by a Black. The written message: "Say no to racist shows."

Before, during and after the bidding, members of two of the nation's leading civil-rights organizations, along with others, staged protests. The Richmond chapters of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference tried to disrupt the auction, saying "it was glorifying the horrors and humiliation of the evils of slavery in a one-day event designed to celebrate King George of England."

To the activists, who tried to disrupt the proceedings -- which attracted a few hundred people -- this was not only "degradation" but gross "trivialization of [our] African American heritage."

They are opposed to "any attempts to give sensationalism to a part of history that has never been fairly documented or properly presented to the American public."

In justifying the auction, Williamsburg officials said that during the 18th century, half of the town's population was Black, and their intent was to depict real-life situations and the truth. …

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To Reenact or Not to Reenact? for Some, Williamsburg Slave Auction Shows Discomfort of Humiliating Past
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