/The White House: Slavery in America: Some historical sites try to show the horrors. Others are far behind.
The White House: Slavery in America: Some historical sites try to show the horrors. Others are far behind.

The White House: Slavery in America: Some historical sites try to show the horrors. Others are far behind.

The White House:

FORT MONROE, Va. — On a scraggly rock outpost in eastern Virginia 400 years ago, a ship came to Fort Monroe with colonial America’s first Africans, forced against their will to land in the New World. That moment inaugurated the racist slavery that set the course of the black experience in this country.

But travel to modern-day Fort Monroe and you’d hardly know it — there’s more Confederate and military history than black history. An arch spelled “Jefferson Davis Memorial Park” in large letters, until their recent removal. A museum preserves the Confederate president’s prison cell following the Civil War. You can see where future Confederate General Robert E. Lee was stationed as a U.S. lieutenant. 

One plaque, erected four years ago, commemorates the arrival of the first Africans.

For decades, many of the country’s celebrated historic monuments similarly glossed over the cruel realities of slavery and racism that define American history.

Sites from Virginia to Kansas are now grappling with how to portray the harsh truths of the past, from former presidents’ enslavement of other humans, to the violent efforts to spread slavery in “free” states, to the historic presence of hundreds of enslaved people at well-loved tourist attractions. 

But those attempts to change how Americans view history have met plenty of pushback: Some people, it seems, prefer a sanitized retelling of America’s past. 

When Terry Brown took over the national monument at Fort Monroe three years ago, the absence of black history — his history — bothered him. In fact, black history was missing at an awful lot of historic sites.

“We live in a great country, but we are going to be even better when we figure out that the true part of our history involves a number of mixed cultures,” said Brown, a National Park Service superintendent.

Brown started a black cultural tour of the site, which will run from July to October every year. He also spearheaded a visitor center in honor of 1619, which is expected to open next year, and is planning a new memorial for the arrival point.

“A great nation,” said Brown, “remembers its history and embraces all the complexities of it.” 

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At Colonial Williamsburg, under an hour away from where the first Africans landed, the quaint, Revolutionary War-era town originally portrayed a largely white experience, ignoring that many of its historic residents enslaved black people.

Williamsburg’s living history museum now strives to present a realistic image of the lives of enslaved and free blacks in the 18th century. For example, Tab Broyles oversees a three-day program that informs America’s teachers about the 18th century black experience and how educators can bring it into the classroom.

“My hope is that people walk away knowing that many different people contributed to who we are as Americans,” Broyles said.

The defining characteristic of a day in the program is powerful emotion. 

When librarian Doug Mayo opens a book featuring a fold-out design of the hold of an 18th-century slave ship, with captured Africans packed in inhumane conditions, teachers let out audible gasps. Some take a seat or step away. 

The White House: Historical interpreter Edwin Cooke III, of Williamsburg, left, gives a colonial writing lesson to visitors at the Randolph house in the restored area of Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Va.

Historical interpreter Edwin Cooke III, of Williamsburg, left, gives a colonial writing lesson to visitors at the Randolph house in the restored area of Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Va.

Steve Helber, AP

When a black character interpreter portraying an enslaved maid poignantly asks the room, filled with many teachers of color: “Have you ever given any consideration to what it means to be a slave?” there are few dry eyes.

Stephen Seals plays the role of a black spy working for Americans in the Revolutionary War. When Seals was a child, he never saw anyone in a museum who looked like him.

“I never want a black kid to come here and feel like they have to bow their head because of what their ancestors went through,” Seals said. “I want them to be able to look me in the eye and say: ‘I’m very proud of what they did, what they all did, in order for me to be able to be here today.'”

Despite its efforts, Williamsburg still has further to go. 

Colonial Williamsburg was majority black, Seals said, but the modern reality doesn’t reflect that. Currently, roughly 30% of the character reenactors are black, but the site’s image as a white space is hard to shake.

But teachers say they’ve noticed a difference.

The White House: Colonial Williamsburg librarian Doug Mayo shows teachers an 18th-century document of the inside of a slave ship.

Colonial Williamsburg librarian Doug Mayo shows teachers an 18th-century document of the inside of a slave ship.

Max Cohen, USA TODAY

“The thought is, ‘It’s Williamsburg; It’s only going to be about white history,'” said Cynthia Georges, a social studies teacher from the Bronx, New York, who is black. “I’m like, ‘No, I learned more about Haitian history last year than I had done in my entire life.'” This summer, she came back for a second session. 

Few have seen the shifts at Colonial Williamsburg as personally as Gregory Stallings, an elementary school teacher from Richmond, Virginia, who is black. As a child, he visited Williamsburg on a field trip in the 1960s.

“It’s amazing to see the African presence that is here right now. When I came before, as a kid, it did not exist,” Stallings said. Now, the teacher is writing a 5th-grade curriculum focusing on Virginian heroes.

After viewing the house of Peyton Randolph, the first president of the Continental Congress before his death in 1775, Stallings asked tour guide Edwin Cooke III whether he considered Randolph a hero. While fighting for American independence, Randolph enslaved 27 people — the most in Colonial Williamsburg.

“He’s probably a hero for many people,” Cooke said, diplomatically. “When you work at a house like this and you’re a descendant of Virginia slave-folks that go back to the 1670s, it becomes a skill to try to find positive things to say about Virginia slave owners, who are part of the government that pushed legislation to oppress more African Virginians.”

The White House: stephen seals quote

Black guides and interpreters like Cooke and Seals are vital to the future of Williamsburg, Seals said, if the site hopes to thrive in a diversifying nation and educate generations of Americans truthfully. But it’s hard to find people willing to play the role of an enslaved person or work at a site promoting American history, which has been so long sanitized.

“It is really difficult to find black interpreters because of the way the history was treated when we were kids,” said Seals, who grew up in West Virginia in the 1980s. “We were not taught to be proud of our history, and we should have been.”

The crowds are changing too, said Brooklyn social studies teacher Sharon Gayle. Fifteen years ago when she visited briefly, she didn’t see any other black people.

“In walking around last year and this year, the number of African-American families that we’ve seen has really, really increased,” Gayle said.

Other national parks are trying to diversify, too. 

In nearby Yorktown, the Colonial National Historical Park is launching an archaeology program exploring the life of one of the first enslaved Africans brought to Virginia in 1619. And Eola Dance, chief of resources management, hopes the National Park Service can attract employees of color like her through internship programs that reach out to urban high schools and students at historically black colleges and universities.

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The White House: Dolly with Andrew Johnson Stover, Andrew Johnson's grandson.

Dolly with Andrew Johnson Stover, Andrew Johnson’s grandson.

National Park Service

But even amid a push to confront historical atrocities, some sites and museums still avoid giving prominent attention to slavery.

The museum at the Tennessee childhood home of Andrew Johnson, president from 1865 to 1869, glosses over his role in keeping America segregated and unequal after the Civil War, historians say.

Johnson, then Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, freed his eight personal slaves on Aug. 8, 1863, celebrated in the state as Emancipation Day. That was more than seven months after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

Then, as president, Johnson overturned “40 acres and a mule,” a Union military order to give formerly enslaved blacks property owned by Confederate landowners. He resisted giving black people the right to vote and allowed Southerners to create the first set of racist codes that led to the oppression of the Jim Crow era.

The website of Johnson’s National Park Service site acknowledges these contradictions: “He was a slave owner who was a product of his time, but he was also a man called ‘Moses’ for the freedom of slaves in Tennessee.” But Aaron Astor, an Andrew Johnson expert and Maryville College historian, takes issue with how the museum describes Johnson’s legacy.

“No, he called himself Moses! No one called him that!” Astor said. “Johnson was someone who was way over the top in the way he presented himself disingenuously.”

Astor said it is vital to tell the entire story of Johnson’s life in order to dispel the myth that there was no slavery in Appalachia.

“There’s a wider ambivalence of how to deal with the legacies of slavery in a place like Appalachia, where people kind of take pride that they were not the slaveholding South,” Astor said. “Yes, that’s true, but their hands are not entirely clean. They did have slavery.”

Help us record black history and American history

Our family stories often define us. Especially stories that explain where we came from. Yet these stories were often stripped from African Americans. We want you to share your stories as part of the 1619 Voices Project. Call us at (202) 524-0992 and tell us: What is an oral history that has been passed down in your family?

Similarly, the fight for the expansion of slavery before the Civil War is central to Midwestern history — but not always advertised.

In Lecompton, Kansas, pro-slavery supporters gathered to write an 1857 constitution that legalized ownership of other humans in the territory, as part of the violent battle known as Bleeding Kansas. 

Now, the small town on the Kansas River is a must-see for history buffs. Its marketing labels itself as the “Civil War Birth Place,” and more controversially, “Where Slavery Began to Die.”

The White House: jonathan earle quote

“No one likes to be on the wrong side of history,” said Jonathan Earle, a Louisiana State University historian and Bleeding Kansas expert.

Despite its euphemistic slogan, the town is best known for the pro-slavery constitution, Earle said. “It was like a slaveholder’s wildest dreams.” The document ultimately failed, rejected both by Kansas’ voters and the U.S. House of Representatives in 1858.

The questionable slogan, Earle said, references more obscure efforts in the town to invalidate the 1857 document that championed slavery.

Even though the town gives those efforts an outsize role in its branding, Earle said its historic sites accurately explain the horrors of Kansas’ pro-slavery movement.

People who want a full view of the brutal, bloody fight for freedom in the Kansas territories, Earle said, should make sure they’re taking in multiple perspectivesEarle was involved in the creation of Freedom’s Frontier, a National Heritage Area that spans across Missouri and Kansas and includes sites such as Quindaro, an abolitionist town settled by escaped slaves on the Missouri River.

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Over the past couple of decades, America’s historic monuments have begun to move away from white-washing the past, according to Caroline Janney, a University of Virginia historian who specializes in the public memory of the Civil War.

“There are very few places that I’ve been to in recent years where I would say it’s been sanitized or left out,” Janney said of slavery.

Education efforts around slavery and racism are improving in some schools, although slowly and with exception.

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“When you expose schoolchildren to it, then there are more questions, and people come to expect that to be part of the experience when they go to historic sites,” Janney said.

Nevertheless, some still resist changes to the white-centric portrayal of American history. When the Jefferson Davis Memorial Arch lettering was taken down at Fort Monroe, the United Daughters of the Confederacy protested, claimed  it represented an erasure of Confederate history.

This summer, an angry review of a historic plantation tour went viral on social media, after white reviewers said they were “extremely disappointed” when the tour guide talked about slavery. “We didn’t come to hear a lecture on how the white people treated slaves,” the reviewer wrote. “We came to get this history of a southern plantation.”

History is about telling the truth, Janney said. Putting historical figures on pedestals and ignoring their racism and white supremacy is inaccurate. Their flaws and their strengths helped shape the country.

“It means confronting those ugly parts of our past as well as the quite wonderful and amazing parts of our past,” Janney said. “It’s not a negative story. It’s just an honest story.”