Does anyone care about American history?
This is a fraught question. The better query is: do people care enough to ensure that Colonial Williamsburg survives dwindling attendance, massive debt and too-hefty raids on the endowment?
When I say “better,” I’m showing my own bias toward a place—actually a museum and special experience—that is peerless in our country. I’m not discounting heavy history tomes or museums scattered throughout our country that capture parts of our national heritage.
Whenever my wife and I spend time immersed in a past that spawned our founding fathers, I feel as if I’m returning to school and paying attention this time around to the words, the lessons, the architecture and the culture.
The picture isn’t always pretty.
Amid the stories about the towering figures who roamed the streets and frequented the pubs, the subjugation of African-Americans has drawn scant concern or compassion.
During our short stay last week, I listened to interpreters portraying Martha Washington and Colonel George Washington and enjoyed modern-day musicians playing and singing pieces treasured by slaves as they painfully coped with bondage.
The musical performance was somber and poignant. The songs were freighted with messages of a sad acquiescence to lives controlled by slave owners. Colonial Williamsburg celebrated its 40th anniversary of paying tribute to the city’s black residents.
Impressed with her high social standing, Martha was a 27-year-old widow when she met a young colonel in the Virginia Militia, in Williamsburg. He had fought for the British in the French and Indian War. They married in 1759, catapulting Washington from an ordinary planter at Mt. Vernon in Fairfax County, VA to a large and wealthy landowner.
Having inherited 17,000 acres from her deceased husband, Daniel Parke Custis, Martha was determined that her second husband become a competent farmer. Throughout the interpretation, Martha always referred to the future Revolutionary War commanding officer and president as “the colonel.”
When in Williamsburg, the audience always must remember the time period in which the interpreter is performing. Though I don’t recall the specific year in which Martha was talking, it preceded the war. She spoke disapprovingly of her son Jack’s poor academic record in college and his heated interest in Eleanor Calvert, who was a member of the prominent Calvert family in Maryland. To no avail, Martha and the colonel tried to distract Jack’s love interest, at least for a time.
What’s particularly fascinating about the interaction with the interpreters comes when they go “out of character” and take any and all questions, whether they relate to colonial or modern-day matters. In response to my question about Martha’s experience as the first First Lady, the interpreter left no doubt that Mrs. Washington much disliked the role in which she was placed for eight years. She did like life better in Philadelphia than she did in New York, site of the country’s first capital.
Portraying George Washington in 1775, the interpreter, deliberately humorless and ponderous, spoke in great detail about his farming activities. He criticized the Boston Tea Party. Instead he thought that colonial planters simply shouldn’t sell their goods to England as protest against British tyranny. When I asked Colonel Washington about his military experience during the French and Indian War, he spoke disparagingly about the arrogant attitude exhibited by British officers toward American officers.
Out of character, Washington’s interpreter said that General Washington, though stoic and many-layered, did have a sense of humor. He also was prone to discount friends and associates who “betrayed” him, not necessarily personally but policy-wise.
These interactions with what Colonial Williamsburg’s “nation builders” captivate me. Not just performers but historians, the interpreters provide invaluable insight into historic figures.
It’s no secret that the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is facing severe financial challenge. In an interview in late June 2018 in the Daily Press, a newspaper covering Hampton, Newport News and Gloucester, Mitchell Reiss, the CEO (and former president of Washington College), said, ‘We are starting to save the foundation.’
In 2017, the foundation withdrew $68 million, a whopping 9.8 percent from unrestricted endowment funds. In 2018, the foundation was slated to withdraw $58 million, or 8.3 percent. Typically, nonprofits withdraw no more than 5 percent from endowment. Reiss said the foundation was seeking a 6 percent withdrawal.
As of the Daily Press interview, the foundation’s debt was $300 million.
In 2017, Colonial Williamsburg cut 71 positions and outsourced 262 jobs to four outside vendors. The foundation has 2,100 employees.
Fundraising is strong. In 2017, new gifts and pledges jumped 8.5 percent from $44.9 million in 2016 to $48.7 million, according to the Daily Press article.
Colonial Williamsburg is a gem. The importance of our colonial history is undeniable. Williamsburg was a training ground for Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison and George Washington, the men who gave birth to our country and established our constitutional government.
My wife and I cherish the priceless value of Colonial Williamsburg. It must remain a part of our historic landscape. For financial reasons, it must operate differently and prudently. And that’s happening. while competing with attractions and visitor experiences that have no historic significance, such as its neighbor, Busch Gardens.
Fun is fine. Mixed with some education, it’s better. Colonial Williamsburg is my fancy.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.