WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) - Despite a growing and continuing emphasis on African-American history, Colonial Williamsburg has struggled to attract more black visitors to the historic village where interpreters stroll the streets attired in bonnets and tricorn hats. It’s a hard sell when human enslavement is a part of the story you’re trying to tell.
But now, a church founded by slaves is at the center of an initiative to reintroduce African-Americans to Colonial Williamsburg and perhaps inspire a national conversation on race and the nation’s origins.
Hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, artists such as Aretha Franklin and African-American scholars are on board to give some star power and intellectual heft to the effort. Organizers are hopeful President Obama will join in.
The concept is simple and symbolic: Colonial Williamsburg has loaned a team of its vaunted historic conservation experts to the First Baptist Church to repair its long-silenced bell. In February, Black History Month, the newly conserved bell will ring for the first time in decades, signaling the start of a “conversation on racial healing” and activities throughout the community and at the historic attraction.
The church and Colonial Williamsburg are inviting the nation and Obama to join in the bell-ringing, called “Let Freedom Ring.”
“It’s a clarion call to finish the unfinished work of liberty and justice for all, and we have to embrace that,” First Baptist pastor Reginald Davis said in an interview of the basement of his sanctuary. “This is our goal - to make people come together to make this a more perfect union.”
As for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, President and CEO Mitchell B. Reiss said the event represents the start of “a fresh conversation with the African-American community, perhaps to have them perceive or see Colonial Williamsburg in a new way.”
Colonial Williamsburg tells the story of Virginia’s 18th century capital. The attraction has more than 400 restored or reconstructed buildings. They include the governor’s palace and the Capitol, which ultimately moved to Richmond.
While Reiss won’t discuss specific numbers, African-American visitors represent a small slice of the visitors to Colonial Williamsburg. Overall, in fact, receipts from admissions and merchandise sales have declined from $75.7 million in 2009 to $60.4 million in 2013, according to a Form 990 filing with the Internal Revenue Service. The form outlines the finances and programs of nonprofits.
Reiss, who said paid attendance is up in 2015, doesn’t hesitate to explain one reason for the dearth of black visitors: the legacy of slavery.
“How do we tell that story? How do we come to a fuller understanding?” he asked. “That’s something that a lot of institutions have struggled with and the country as a whole. We’re still struggling.”
At times, the effort to authentically represent the black experience has fallen flat at Colonial Williamsburg. The re-enactment in the 1990s of a slave auction was criticized as insensitive, although it was intended to depict actual conditions in colonial Virginia.
More than half of the 2,000 people who lived in Williamsburg in the late 18th century were black; most were slaves.
Reiss said future programs involving African-Americans will be approached cautiously - and suggested they will be unflinching.
“The challenge here is: this is our country. This is our story,” Reiss said. “This isn’t a foreign country that did something terrible, evil. This is our inheritance that we have to understand.”
Pastor Davis agrees that the nation’s legacy of slavery is “so brutal, so inhumane,” many African-Americans have no desire to revisit those days. But he also says it’s important to ensure that black Americans have a say in how their struggle is represented.
“If someone else tells your history for you, they may not tell it like you should be telling,” he said.
News researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
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