Friday, October 19, 2007

I Am Both an Ignorant Woman and a Young, Black House Servant Named William

Location: Colonial Williamsburg, VA

Click for Larger Image of the ActorsI have been at Colonial Williamsburg. The main thing I learned is that I am woefully ignorant when it comes to the American Revolution. Sure, I knew "one if by land, two if by sea" and that "taxation without representation" was the catalyst for the revolution. I knew Patrick Henry said "give me liberty or give me death" and I had a fleeting idea that Philadelphia was where "it" all happened. I knew that the 13 states were more like nation-states, attempting to protect their own position and power. To my credit, I have read Bill of Rights, and consider it to be the single most important document that safeguards our freedoms. I support the ACLU because their sole purpose is to protect those rights -- even if I hate, with every fiber of my being, the person they are defending.

Click for Larger Image of the Fife PlayersBut Williamsburg teaches that those events were real, the people were real, and the things they did took courage, cunning, and bravery. They put you in the middle of it. There are many actors dressed in period costumes who stay in character most of the time (infrequently, one could heard saying modern phrases like, "no way!" that I seriously doubt was a common 18th Century phrasing). Even the music is period -- a fife and drum parade in the village green was a fine way to end the day.

Some tidbits of information that I'm pretty sure escaped my fifth grade textbook --

Did you know Michigan was once considered part of Virginia?

Did you know Patrick Henry became the Governor of Williamsburg after the Revolution?

Did you know the people of 1775 had free speech, a free press, the right to assemble peacefully, and to petition the government? What is missing from this list? The missing element is freedom of religion. The Church of England WAS the same as the government -- there was no separation of church and state. What do you think was the most common misdemeanor at that time? It was failure to attend church at least once a month. The punishment was a fine, but lashes were given if the miscreant was unable to pay (on the bare back, man or woman).

Voting was a requirement for any man who was of age, white, protestant, and owned property of a set value (e.g., qualified amounts of property included 50 acres if unimproved, 25 acres if planted, or a house itself was enough if it was in town). There were no excuses for not voting. If you had to walk a day to get into town, then that's what you did, on the day before the election. You voted; then the next day you walked home.

In the 18th Century, slave ownership was commonplace, and there were more black faces than white on the streets of Williamsburg.

Click for Larger Image of WilliamI took a tour of the Peyton Randolph house. As we entered, we were given the identity of someone who had lived in the house, and we could follow "our" self through the tour. The identities included the Randolphs and their slaves -- his butler and her assistant, the waiters and waitresses, the cooks and kitchen help, and other workers and servants. I was the last in line, and by then they had run out of "girls," so I was the slave William, the "Young House Servant." They told me I could think of myself as "Willimena" if I wanted.

As we moved from room to room we found out that this particular couple was well to do, and treated their 27 slaves well, at least as these things go. The slaves had food, clothes, and slept indoors on pallets. They were not horribly mistreated, and some were close to being members of the family.

This household was a rebel home. Did you know the British freed slaves of rebel homes? There was a catch -- you had to be able to fight with the British against the revolutionaries. How would you feel if you were the slave in a loyalist house, and were not included?

Click for Larger Image of a Man and His HorseOne night the British stormed into Williamsburg, and with them were a thousand slaves they had freed as they moved through the countryside. The newly freed slaves were running through the streets, looting buildings for the British. As a slave in the Randolph household, all you had to do is look out the window to see them. This is your chance to leave, perhaps the only one you will ever have. You can go with them, and no one can stop you. You will be free, but may very likely starve or be killed in battle. Or you can stay in bondage, knowing that you will at least have food and basic necessities. What do you do?

At the end of the tour we found out which of our alter egos had stayed and which had gone. The slaves closest to the family, the one in positions of trust, who had been confidants and travelling companions and were the best cared for, were primarily the ones who left. William, who was never more than a "house servant" in the story of the Randolphs, stayed. He was later sold at auction when Mrs. Randolph passed away.

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