On her days off, New Yorker Cheyney McKnight might pull on leggings and a T-shirt or an African-print dress. But it takes a little longer for her to get ready for her day job, when she dresses in a chemise, a corset, and three layers of petticoats topped by a floor-length, blue cotton gown and a printed fabric headwrap.
McKnight is a 21st-century Black American, but the historic interpreter and founder of Not Your Momma’s History specializes in portraying enslaved and free people of color during the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States. Drawing on almost a decade of work at living history sites including Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg, she might dress as an enslaved African to demonstrate hearth cooking at a Virginia plantation or depict a free Creole woman during a New Orleans history festival.
McKnight, like many interpreters, works in the third person, mimicking the garb—and wielding the old-school kitchen implements—of the past, but not pretending to be a character from another time. She thinks this perspective allows her to speak more plainly and to put difficult issues like enslavement, racism, and torture into context. “It can be difficult interacting with guests, but I want to meet the challenge,” says McKnight. “My goal is to increase accurate portrayals of Black Americans at historic sites and museums.”
For McKnight and other historic interpreters of color, slipping into roles and robes echoing a racist, fraught past can be tough. But the stories she and her BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) compatriots tell are more important than ever. “I don’t want to play into people’s fantasies,” says McKnight. “I cannot just sit around in a dress without talking about the wider implications of slavery.”
What’s an interpreter anyhow?
In a snuff box: Historic interpreters are museum professionals, historians, or actors who assume the clothing, trades, and, sometimes, actual first-person identities of notable figures from prior centuries (i.e. Martha Washington at Mount Vernon, Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia).
In Cairo, Egypt, employees of the Pharaonic Village don fake gold headdresses or tunics to summon citizens of King Tut’s time; at Stockholm’s Skansen historic village, you might chat with a woman in a homespun 18th-century-style dress and straw hat working a spinning wheel.
In the U.S., most interpreters hoopskirt or tricorn-hat it up at one of the nearly 200 living history museums across the country, places from immersive “historic theme parks” like Colonial Williamsburg to smaller Civil War forts or grand Victorian-era estates. Some historic interpreters are full-time employees, others part-timers or volunteers at special events. They do everything from conjuring well-heeled 1930s party guests on tours of California’s Hearst Castle to marching as 1880s soldiers at Michigan’s Fort Mackinac.
Many interpreters, including McKnight, perform in third person; others recreate a historic figure in first person, drawing from archival materials and biographies and rarely stepping out of character. For example, Stephen Seals plays enslaved American Revolution spy James Armistead Lafayette at Colonial Williamsburg.
These time-traveling guides and sites share a mission to educate visitors about history by immersing them in people, places, and activities. But institutions that employ—and try to honestly depict—people of color still have a long way to go.
Underrepresented, but a time of reckoning
In the early decades of the 20th century, many historic sites glossed over or simply left people of color out of their programming. Antebellum plantations might have had a costumed tour guide, but it was probably a white woman decked out as a romanticized, Gone with the Wind-style lady of the manor, not an enslaved Black person. If slavery was alluded to, staffers might genteelly mention “servants.”
In the late 18th century, more than half of the population of the city of Williamsburg was Black, burdened with the firewood chopping, bedpan emptying, and farming that kept the capital of the colony of Virginia humming. Colonial Williamsburg, a 301-acre open-air museum of early American life, opened on the remnants of the old city in 1932. But only a few costumed employees represented Black citizens, most of them dressed as coachmen. Slavery wasn’t talked about much.
When first-person interpretation started at Colonial Williamsburg in the late 1970s, three Black actors were among the troupe of nine people. The Black interpreters portrayed a range of enslaved characters including Reverend Gowan Pamphlet, a minister who was eventually freed. Today, 36 first-person actor-interpreters are on staff; 14 of them are Black, though the total number of costumed interpreters of color on site is just 10 percent. “We still haven’t found the sweet spot to make sure that the full story is told, but we’re further than we’ve ever been,” says Seals.
It’s not a unique situation; people of color are underrepresented in the U.S. museum industry overall. In the case of interpreters, many Black Americans have no interest in suiting up and reenacting a past including such harsh realities. Azie Mira Dungey, an actress and former Mount Vernon interpreter, even made a web series, Ask a Slave, satirizing the difficulties (and dumb questions) Black interpreters face.
A 2018 survey conducted by The Mellon Foundation with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) found that 72 percent of museum employees, including interpreters, were white.
This lack of industry representation risks making guests of color feel unwelcome, since their points of views and pasts—however painful—aren’t being told. “At an institutional level we need to check our own biases,” says Kathy Dixon, vice president of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM)–a trade group for historical interpreters. “If we are not telling their stories, they are not being invited in.”
A delicate balance
Interpreters of color have to walk a corset lace-thin line between informing audiences and alienating them; between self-preservation and showcasing the vulnerable lives of minorities.
At Colonial Williamsburg, historian and actress Mary Carter began portraying Aggy, a real-life 18th-century enslaved Black woman, in 2012, drawn by her unexpectedly nuanced biography.
Like many slaves, light-skinned Aggy was impregnated by her owner, Ryland Randolph, and bore him two children. More unusual: When Randolph died, his will stipulated that Aggy and her children be freed. It would take a battle in courts to enforce his wishes. “I wanted people to know her name and to know her story,” says Carter.
In tours and talks, Carter—biracial herself—veers into dark and disturbing topics like consent, violence, and human rights. As Aggy, Carter is wary and speaks with hesitation, exuding the cornered nervousness of someone whose time, words, and movements are not her own. The questions visitors pepper her with—“Did Randolph love her? Was he good to her?”—demand hard-to-hear answers. “I understand what they’re asking: They want to know if there was hope or a silver lining,” says Carter. “I think enslaved people did find moments of joy, but it’s wrong to look for them in the actions of people who held them in bondage.”
Like most interpreters, Carter’s research—through letters, court documents, and diaries—continues. This, and her personal background, mean her portrayal of Aggy is continuously evolving. “There have been times in my own life I was made to feel ashamed because I was a descendant of enslaved people,” she says. “But they forgot to tell me to be proud of what they endured, what they survived, what their strength caused them to push through.”
Not all visitors to historic sites are open to more layered takes on history. It’s probably more pleasant to chat about Martha Washington’s bejeweled wedding shoes with Elizabeth Keaney, who plays the first First Lady at George Washington’s Mount Vernon historic site, than to discuss the grueling workdays and meager diet of her enslaved housemaid, Carolyn Branham, portrayed by Brenda Parker.
“Unfortunately, interpreters of color find that visitors treat them very differently than they do their white coworkers,” says Dixon. “They can often be rude and demanding, treating interpreters as if they are enslaved and the visitor the ‘owner.’’’
The nonprofit International Coalition of Sites of Conscience helps historic sites, museums, and memorials tell stories that are both inclusive and easy-to-grasp. The organization recently helped Conner Prairie, a pioneer-culture living history museum outside Indianapolis, retool its “Follow the North Star” program. The program puts guests in the shoes of runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.
“There is an element of fantasy to living history museums and costumed interpretation that seems to give some visitors a strange sense of entitlement,” says the group’s spokesperson Braden Paynter. “It’s as if they receive permission to play with power roles. We have to be conscious about not recreating harmful dynamics from the past.”
McKnight, of Not Your Momma’s History, agrees. “When you go into reenacting as a Black person, you’re a celebrity and [audiences] love you—as long as you are doing what they want you to do,” she says. When she talks about aspects of slavery that make people uncomfortable, they sometimes become aggressive, combative or even resort to verbal abuse. “It’s really interesting that someone in a costume or historical garb can elicit that type of response.”
Would ‘color-blind’ casting help?
Annelise Meck, a Chinese-American, regularly decks herself out in 19th-century shifts and bonnets to lead tours at the Genesee Country Village & Museum in upstate New York. But guests don’t always just blithely listen to her talk about the site’s “town” of 60 relocated antique structures from colonial-era wooden houses to an 1884 Victorian opera house. Meck finds people ask her if an Asian person would even be in the U.S. at that time, and she encounters stereotypes about what people from the past looked like (read: white).
“I felt like a unicorn for a long time, because there wasn’t representation of my heritage,” she says. Even as a third-person interpreter, Meck finds herself rebutting naysayers with facts. “I’ll tell people that the Chinese have a long history in the country. I’m also an American. This is also my history.”
Meck has had positive encounters related to her heritage as well: Last season, a Caucasian mother brought her adopted Chinese son to visit and later told Meck she had made him “feel welcomed and a part of things.”
Still, for first-person interpretation, most museum experts think using “blind casting” with a Black George Washington (à la the musical Hamilton) or a Latina Harriet Tubman won’t help people understand history better. It simply clouds the issues at historic sites. “We have to be very thoughtful and deliberate about castings,” says Katrinah Lewis, artistic director of Colonial Williamsburg’s interpretation program. “Race matters to the founding of this country. We have to work against erasing that by suggesting that it was an inclusive time when it wasn’t.”
Finding new stories and angles
The path forward at historic sites seems twofold: Surface accounts of lesser-known figures (like Colonial Williamsburg’s Aggy) and let more BIPOC people in on the larger conversation.
“Just like every other group, people of color need to have their own narrative, their own agency,” says Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham, the creative director of Museum Hue, an association devoted to cultural professionals of color. “Predominantly white institutions should not be the only cultural authorities.” In addition to casting more people of color in roles at historic houses and living history sites, hiring curators and leaders will help diversify the field.
There are signs of change. At Oklahoma’s Fort Gibson National Historic Landmark, Black American Omar Reed has been presenting popular programs on Black, post-Civil War Buffalo Soldiers and Native American resettlement since 2004; he was named the site’s director in 2019. Massachusetts’s Plimoth Plantation, which depicts a 17th-century village of English settlers from The Mayflower and a traditional Wampanoag Native American village, changed its name to Plimoth-Patuxet in July 2020 to better reflect the site’s duality.
The interpretation field still has more progress to make. Colonial Williamsburg’s Carter believes the events that led to recent Black Lives Matter protests across the country mean living history sites have a greater responsibility to tell full and accurate stories.
“We can no longer reassure people that the lies that they were told in American History class are true.”
Jennifer Barger is a senior travel editor at National Geographic who writes frequently about history. Follow her on Instagram.
Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based travel writer and National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram.