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Boldly Telling the Full Story of America’s Beginnings

“Behind libraries, museums are the most trusted institutions in America. And that's an incredible amount of responsibility,” notes Christy Coleman, Executive Director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

Every year, millions flock to America’s museums and historical sites for a taste of the American experience.  Visitors connect with the places, stories, and people of the past, often with the help of historical interpreters.

Stephens Seals, the Senior Manager of African American Programs at Colonial Williamsburg, explains:  “The job of an interpreter is to help you to see your history and give you a context want to know more or to think about it in a different way.”

The push to preserve America’s historical sites began in the early 20th century.  As well-intentioned as that was, America’s early triumphs and founders took center stage, relegating an ugly truth to the sidebar of history: slavery.

Brandon Dillard, who serves as Monticello’s Manager of Special Programs, says, “People come to historic sites and they think, ‘Well, this is how it was.’  If you don't see slavery, then you can pretend like it wasn't there.  And I think that was very much the case for historic sites in the early 20th century.  And everybody who works here – everybody – knew that that was a problem.”

As the Civil Rights Movement fought to expose racial injustice, historians also began digging deeper into African Americans’ role in building this country.  

Bly Straub, Curator for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, points out that, “They were here just twelve years after the English arrived.  They were part of that beginning.”

The slave trade in English North America potentially began in 1619, when enslaved West Africans were brought by the Portuguese to Jamestown, Virginia.  But little was known about the population growth, until data discovered in the 1950s shed some light: that by the start of the Revolutionary War, over half the population of Williamsburg, Virginia – one of America’s first major cities – was Black.

Stephen explains, “That was a revelation to researchers here.  And they started saying, there's a whole half of the population that we are not representing at all.”  

Brandon notes, “A lot of history is about different perspectives, and sometimes history is about trying to piece together what was removed.”

At historical sites throughout the country, great efforts were made to expose the reality of enslavement.  But the facts alone, again, painted an incomplete picture.  Missing were the stories of real people, their lives, and their viewpoints.     

Stephen says, “If you try to say that this is about a ‘slave,’ they become a statistic.  And we heard those statistics growing up in school, and it's really easy to take a statistic and just put it over to the side.”

Gayle Jessup White, Community Engagement Officer at Monticello, shares, “Coming to a place where your ancestors were literally enslaved, it can be painful.”  

Stephen adds, “As a Black kid growing up, I was never taught to love my history.  It was always meant to be shameful; it was always meant to be something that we whispered about.”  

The emphasis on oppression – though very much a reality – meant another truth was still untold:   that Black Americans have just as much claim to founding this country as anyone.

Stephen points out, “You can't truly have the American story if you don't have each and every one of those voices contributing to it.”

In the last forty years, many historic sites and museums have taken bold approaches to telling the full story of America’s beginnings.  

Stephen says, “When we look at a program, it's not a program about slavery, but it's a program about people.”  

At Colonial Williamsburg, interpreters portray historical figures from the time - including enslaved and freed African Americans.  Stephen Seals plays James Lafayette, an enslaved man who won his freedom by serving as a Revolutionary War spy.  

Stephen shares, “When people see and experience something, it helps you to be more open to taking in what's going to happen, before you can really start to have those really, really deep conversations.”

But visitors aren’t the only ones affected.  Stephen admits that, at first, he was disheartened by his character’s history, until a Black colleague gave him a new perspective.

He remembers her saying, “‘Don't lower your head.  Hold your head up high.  The story of slavery is not a story of defeat.  It is not a story of shame.  It is a story of survival.  About all of these people that survived long enough for you to be sitting here today, able to tell their story.  And you should be proud of that.’"  

Christy Coleman says telling the story accurately means taking some chances.

She explains, “Sometimes that work is difficult.  Sometimes that work is emotional.  But at the end of the day it's all enlightening.  And it builds, I think, an important empathy, which, sometimes it feels like we’re missing that.”

Christy was an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  In 1994 she and her colleagues decided to reenact a slave auction, live.  The announcement sparked international controversy, on all sides of the issue.  

She remembers, “There were all kinds of presumptions about what the program was actually going to be.  Everything from having people half naked, allowing visitors to touch them, allowing visitors to bid on - it was just nonsense.”

Stephen adds, “They were expecting it to be this really just, screaming and visceral and just...except for the people that are experiencing it, who are being sold off, who are trying to be strong, or can’t be.   And that, to me, is what’s the most powerful about this, and turned the tide during the middle of it to make people go, ‘You’re right.  This is a story that needs to be told.’”  

Other sites were also taking bold action.  In 1993 at Monticello, the home of founding father - and slave owner - Thomas Jefferson, historians started the Getting Word Oral History Project, and began tours about slavery.  Both initiatives share real life stories passed down by the enslaved to their families.  

Gayle says, “What we're doing here is putting back in historical record people whose lives were diminished and dismissed and giving them the value that they earned in their lifetimes but weren't allowed to demonstrate.”

Then in 1998, DNA testing proved a centuries-old rumor: that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemmings.  Gayle Jessup White is one of their hundreds of descendants.  

She explains, “Enslavement and Reconstruction and Jim Crow separated and destroyed families. Happened in my own family. Thanks to Getting Word and the efforts here, the descendants of those broken families have been brought back together.”
 
The Civil War was one of America’s most divisive times.  After the war, museums were founded to tell stories of the battlefield and the generals who led each side.  Today, the American Civil War Museum tells a much more detailed story that includes the voices of enslaved and free African Americans.  As the museum’s former CEO, Christy Coleman guided its 2019 launch.

She says, “When we have that fuller narrative, to me, it enables us to see the present that we're living in, to answer the questions that we have.  If we're half-stepping it, we're not giving ourselves all of the tools to address the challenges that face our nation.”

Behind the tireless work at all of these sites, there’s a fundamental goal: that through a thorough understanding of our shared past, we can overcome the issues that divide us today.

Gayle says, “I want all of us to feel and to function as one people, as Americans.”

Christy says, “We can no longer afford convenient and/or half-truths.  We can no longer afford an indoctrination narrative versus a really thoughtful consideration of the past.  I genuinely believe that we will never get right with each other until we get our history right.”

Links:

American Civil War Museum
https://acwm.org

Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
https://www.historyisfun.org

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
https://www.monticello.org

Colonial Williamsburg
https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.com

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