Much of what separates the good historic sites from the bad is an approach of stewardship rather than social justice. Do the leadership, staff, donors, and partners of a historic site desire to educate citizens on their nation’s past, or transform visitors and the country through activism? How Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum, answers this question will determine its course.
Colonial Williamsburg has much to offer, and many of its tours are informative and even-handed. But some of its performances are interspersed with discordant notes. What is lost is a cohesive story of Colonial Williamsburg, of what makes it unique and its place in American history. To sustain itself as an educational, rather than an activist, historic site, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation needs to be careful of the company it keeps.
First, it must look to its staff. While many of the guides are history-lovers who give impartial tours, others have an activist bent. On occasion, character interpreters—craftsmen and tour guides dressed in colonial garb—engage visitors with emotional or political questions, seemingly wanting to confront people with America’s lamentable shortcomings and contradictions to make visitors uncomfortable. One interpreter, for example, believes that “the heart of all good interpretation is provocation.” When introducing a panel discussion of Juneteenth, Beth Kelly, the vice president of education, research, and historic interpretation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, asserted we need to commit ourselves “to the unfinished work of eradicating systematic racism.” This is not a portrait of history, but activism.
Colonial Williamsburg is a member of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). A coalition of 35,000 museums and museum professionals, the AAM has established DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility) as one of its four strategic priorities and developed a plethora of materials on DEIA and anti-racism. The AAM holds that museums should “champion an anti-racist movement” to create a “more just and equitable world,” and museum leaders should move away from “white-dominant characteristics of perfection, risk aversion, and conflict avoidance.” Clearly, the organization believes that the purpose of museums and historic sites is not to preserve history but to promote activists' ideas of social justice.
Colonial Williamsburg’s archeological projects involve some bad actors as well. The First Baptist Church Excavation Project recreates one of the country’s earliest African American congregations, a noble initiative. Dr. Michael Blakey, Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at William and Mary, was invited to participate in a subcommittee for the project. At first blush, this seems entirely appropriate given his experience and expertise as an anthropologist. But some of his previous work gives cause for concern.
Dr. Blakey co-authored a set of guidelines developed by James Madison’s Montpelier and the National Trust for Historic Preservation on how to engage descendants and teach slavery. These recommendations assert that staff should undergo antiracist training and engage visitors at historic sites on topics like white supremacy. The guidelines insist, “For institutions that interpret slavery, it is not enough simply to discuss the humanity and contributions of the enslaved. It is imperative that these institutions also unpack and interrogate white privilege and supremacy and systemic racism.”
Slavery is part of American history, so it is entirely appropriate for historic sites to offer tours discussing that horrific institution as part of a holistic view of history. George Washington’s Mount Vernon provides an example of how this can be done well. But when sites move from depicting slavery in a matter-of-fact manner to unpacking and interrogating "white privilege" (per the guidelines), they have once again strayed from the realm of history and waded into activism.
These guidelines also recommend that descendants of those who were enslaved be guaranteed half the seats on the governing boards of historic institutions. Descendants are defined as those with genealogical ties as well as those “who feel connected to the work the institution is doing, whether or not they know of a genealogical connection.” This wildly expansive definition—one grounded more in politics than genealogy—enabled the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC), most of whom are not actual Montpelier descendants, to seize majority control of the Montpelier board.
According to investigative work done by the Washington Examiner’s Quin Hillyer, Dr. Blakey pressured the Montpelier board in support of the MDC: “After sending a bombastic letter threatening ‘public embarrassment and a negative impact on the Montpelier budget,’ left-wing scholar Michael Blakey used an October 2020 board meeting to browbeat the board, according to numerous accounts. If it didn’t accede to the MDC’s demands, critics would ‘rain ruin’ on the board, multiple members recalled.” One wonders if members of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation will be treated to the same intimidation techniques.
Another partner of Colonial Williamsburg, the College of William & Mary, is also adhering to Montpelier’s guidelines. Colonial Williamsburg and William & Mary are working together on the Bray School Lab, an 18th-century institute dedicated to the education of free and enslaved black children. William & Mary hosts the research arm of the project, which is aligning its research with Montpelier’s recommendations.
The prescribed research methodology is to use “sources to ‘read between the lines’ (even documents that are not on the surface ‘about’ slavery or enslaved people often contain valuable information). Genealogy, oral history, documents, archaeology, material culture, study of buildings, community research, and outreach are placed on equal footing.” Placing oral histories on an “equal footing” with more valid source materials is problematic. Memories are often unreliable or biased, and stories are often inaccurately preserved from one person to another, as anyone who has played the game “telephone” can attest. Oral histories can be informative, but need to be verified with additional documentation.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Colonial Williamsburg $5 million for the Bray School initiative. This grant is one of the largest the Mellon Foundation has given as part of its $250 million Monuments Project “to reimagine and rebuild commemorative spaces and transform the way history is told in the United States.”
Colonial Williamsburg is at a crossroads. It can follow James Madison’s home of Montpelier, whose leadership now has no interest in honoring a “dead white president and a dead white president’s Constitution” and seeks to use historic sites to reinterpret America as a nation defined by white privilege and systemic racism. Or it can aspire to be like George Washington’s Mount Vernon, which is committed to historical standards and commemorating Washington’s and America’s story fairly, honestly, and modestly.
The difference is one of activism versus education, and the stakes are the principles upon which America was founded. If those principles are sufficiently tainted, they can be replaced by something else. Rather than united as self-governing citizens, we will become activists, divided by resentment and dispossessed of the dignity of our tradition. This is a moment of choosing, and it is essential that we choose wisely.
This piece originally appeared in The American Conservatism