Much of what we think we know about America’s past has been shaped by legends, myths, half-truths and outright lies. This became painfully evident recently when President Donald Trump essentially told four U.S. Congresswomen of color to “go back to where you came from.”

400th Anniversary of the First Slave Ship Arrival

Ironically, that’s exactly what many museums and historic sites  in the United States are doing in 2019. As the nation acknowledges the 400th anniversary of the first slaves arriving in America, these historians are boldly going back to look where we have never looked before.

Brutally frank exhibits are re-examining our dark past of slavery, and for the first time taking the lid off the pot to let us peek into the boiling, angry stew that made America.

Williamsburg -- The Governor's Palace. The wealth of Williamsburg was created by the enslaved population, which was 50% of the residents at the time of the Revolution
Exhibits at Colonial Williamsburg explore America’s history of slavery. The wealth of the town of Williamsburg, VA was created by the enslaved population, which was 50% of the residents at the time of the Revolution. Photo by Rich Grant

New museums on the American Revolution and the Civil War are joining the new Harriet Tubman National Historic Site, and there’s even a new disturbing exhibit that offers a close look at sacred George Washington and slavery.

Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” Here’s what people traveling to these sites will find.

Jamestown Settlement has a recreated forts and interpreters who demostrates musket or cannon firings.
Jamestown Settlement has a recreated forts and interpreters who demonstrate musket or cannon firings. Photo by Rich Grant

Jamestown Settlement – Where It All Began

When were the first slaves brought to North America? It started here 400 years ago in August 1619 when two English privateers, the White Lion and the Treasurer, sailed into Jamestown harbor with the first 50 African slaves ever brought to North America.

One was a young girl named Angelo. She had been born in the town of Ndongo in the Portuguese colony of Angola in West Central Africa.

Captured by Portuguese slavers, she was on her way to Mexico to work in silver mines when, incredibly, the slave ship was captured by English privateers and Angelo was brought to Virginia instead.

Her amazing story is told in a special exhibition at Jamestown Settlement. Owned by the state of Virginia, Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum that re-creates what life was like in the early 1600s in the first English colony in North America.

For families, it’s an outdoor adventure. You can visit a colonial wooden fort, watch cannon and musket firings, climb aboard replicas of the three sailing ships that first landed here, walk through a Powhatan Indian village, patrol the ramparts, and hear stories about the real Pocahontas. It’s fun and colorful and great for photos.

Ships at Jamestown Settlement. These are the first three ships to bring English colonists to North America, but would be similar to the privateers that brought the first enslaved Africans in 1619.
Ships at Jamestown Settlement. These were the first three ships to bring English colonists to North America, but would be similar to the privateers that brought the first enslaved Africans in 1619. Photo by Rich Grant

Darker Aspects of American History with Slavery

But the Jamestown Settlement also courageously examines the darker aspects of our history. In the appropriate cool darkness of a museum, visitors walk through representations of the three cultures that converged in Virginia in 1609. First, you enter a village in Angola and learn about the food, music and people of Angelo’s home in Africa.

You meet Queen Njinga of Ndongo and hear of great African cities of tens of thousands of people, many of whom were craftsmen who excelled in metal and cloth work. Their world was about to end.

Eventually, 597,000 Africans would be captured, shackled and dragged across the Atlantic to work as slaves in what became the United States.  As late as 1820, four Africans were forced to cross the Atlantic for every European who sailed it by choice.

Next in the dark museum, you turn a corner and walk into an Indian village and hear stories about the people already living here in Virginia, such as Chief Powhatan, who ruled more than 14,000 people in 32 tribes. Most of them would be dead in a few decades from wars and disease.

Finally, you are in Elizabethan England, discovering the religious challenges, famines, wars, plagues and equal horrors of life in Europe that would drive people to risk crossing an ocean to seek a new world.

It’s the story of a clash of cultures and a battle for power —  like “Game of Thrones,” times 10. Like “Game of Thrones,” there are lovers, heroes, traitors and victims. But mostly, there is endurance. A new exhibit “TENACITY: Women in Jamestown,” reminds us that of all the suffering, no one fared worse in the “New World” than women, whether Indian, Black or English.

At the same time Africans were arriving in 1619, the Virginia Company was recruiting and starting to send 140 maids from England to Jamestown. Men in the colony paid for the passage of each maid with 150 pounds of tobacco. The maids were expected to pay back the cost of their passage by becoming a new type of indentured servant — wives.

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

When Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776 that “all men are created equal,” it wasn’t true in America. One out of five people living in the 13 colonies at that time was an enslaved African, while women had very limited rights.

The new American Revolution Museum, which opened in 2017, addresses this paradox. Built on the same model as Jamestown Settlement (and also owned by the state of Virginia), it offers living history in an exciting way. There are 4D films where smoke fills the auditorium during battle scenes and you can smell sea spray, coffee and chocolate. The seats shake when cannons go off and the battle sequence at sea is quite thrilling with cannon balls coming right at you. There are interactive displays, games, videos, a soldier’s camp, cannon firings and a working farm.

But this is not your grandfather’s history museum with George Washington standing up in a boat crossing the Delaware. The working farm includes slave quarters, since most of the farms in the South at this time had slaves. A new exhibit (up until March 2020) is called “The Forgotten Soldier.” It tells the story of the 9,000 Africans (free and enslaved) who fought for America in the Revolution.

The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown uses 4D films where cannonballs come right at you, the theater fills with smoke during battles, the seats shake every time a cannon fires, and you can actually smell coffee and chocolate in some of the scenes.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown uses 4D films where cannonballs come right at you, the theater fills with smoke during battles, the seats shake every time a cannon fires, and you can actually smell coffee and chocolate in some of the scenes. Photo by Rich Grant

50,000 Slaves Escaped to Join the British Army

But even more fascinating is the story of the 50,000 enslaved who escaped from American bondage to join the British army. Seventeen of them were owned by George Washington.  The British offered freedom to any slave who enlisted in their army.

Fearing uprisings, the British were reluctant to arm escaped slaves, so they went to work as laborers, coopers, blacksmiths, boat pilots, teamsters and guides, while African women served as nurses and cooks. Of course, when the British lost, most of the enslaved never got their promise of freedom and were instead left behind and returned to slavery.

The Americans did arm enslaved and free Africans, and some 5,000 served as musket-carrying soldiers, including the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Alexander Hamilton led their light company in a night attack on Redoubt No. 10, a British fortification at nearby Yorktown.

With unloaded muskets and relying on the cold steel of bayonets, Hamilton and his men carried the redoubt, which ultimately forced the British to surrender.

Throughout the new museum, life-size videos help you meet and hear the stories of the men, women and enslaved who endured the Revolution. At the next stop, the videos come to life.

Colonial Williamsburg is the 1770 capital of Virginia, transported to the 21st century with gardens and brick sidewalks and hundreds of original and reconstructed buildings from the 1700s.
Colonial Williamsburg is the 1770 capital of Virginia, transported to the 21st century with gardens and brick sidewalks and hundreds of original and reconstructed buildings from the 1700s. Photo by Rich Grant

Colonial Williamsburg

This is the world’s largest living-history museum, covering some 301 acres — an area one mile long by a half-mile wide that is filled with 88 original colonial buildings and hundreds of reconstructed ones. It is Virginia’s capital city from the 1770s, transported to the 21st century with horse-drawn carriages, craftsmen, taverns, brick sidewalks, colonial gardens, costumed actors portraying both famous and ordinary people, fife and drum bands, 18th century shops, white picket fences, and palaces. And enslaved Africans.

For 40 years, Colonial Williamsburg has had costumed actors performing first-person interpretations of African enslaved people, who made up 50 percent of the population of the town in 1770.

It’s difficult to remember today how controversial it was in 1979 to talk about slavery, let alone portray it. African American actor-interpreters endured pushback and insults from both blacks and whites.

An interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg demonstrates how enslaved Africans used drums to communicate. The enslaved preserved many traditions from their African ancestors. The drums could be used to convey messages, such as "The overseer is coming -- everyone look busy!" It was one of the many ways that enslaved people fought back and resisted slavery.
An interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg demonstrates how enslaved Africans used drums to communicate. The enslaved preserved many traditions from their African ancestors. The drums could be used to convey messages, such as “The overseer is coming — everyone look busy!” It was one of the many ways that enslaved people fought back and resisted slavery. Photo by Rich Grant

They still do. Many people felt that interpreting slavery was just bringing back the degradation and humiliation of the era, while others said, if you don’t include slavery, you are only telling 50 percent of the story.

Things came to a head in 1994, a time when Civil War re-enacting was booming with as many as 15,000 “soldiers” turning up for “battle” before 100,000 spectators. Colonial Williamsburg got into the game with a re-enactment of a slave auction — an event that happened frequently in real 18th century America.

Unfortunately, Colonial Williamsburg quickly learned that America in 1994 was not ready for the truth. The event generated such outrage from national media that it was never repeated.

Today, you can see a videotape of the re-enacted slave auction at the Raleigh Tavern, where an exhibit celebrates the challenges and the victories that have occurred in 40 years of telling the African American story. Even little victories make a big difference.

Slave quarters at the Museum of the American Revolution at Yorktown.
Slave quarters at the Museum of the American Revolution at Yorktown. Photo by Rich Grant

Slave vs. Enslaved

At Williamsburg, you learn that the word “slave” is a noun that gives a one-dimensional view of a person, whereas “enslaved” is an adjective that allows for many more interpretations, such as “enslaved carpenter,” “enslaved blacksmith,” “enslaved chef,” “enslaved master gardener,” and so many other roles that were filled by enslaved Africans in early America.

Stephen Seals, head of African American interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg, put together the exhibit and says the story of African slavery in America is not a story of shame, but “one of hope and perseverance that should make ancestors of the enslaved feel proud.”

A gifted actor and writer, Seals has worked here for 12 years, doing various interpretations, including a current one of James Armistead Lafayette, a brilliant enslaved 19-year-old who lived in Williamsburg and became a hero during the Revolution.

Seals plays James Armistead as an older man, reminiscing about his life. Sent by his owner to deliver whiskey to the Marquis de Lafayette, commander of American forces in Virginia, James developed a relationship with the young French general. Though it was against the law, James could read and write and even speak French. Because of this, Lafayette came up with a plan.

The Frenchmen knew that black servants were “invisible” to the British. They could be in a room where generals were making battle plans and not be noticed. Lafayette convinced James to pretend to desert the Americans and secure a job at British headquarters, where he could send back intelligence. James agreed and was soon in the British camp.

Here, he so impressed British General Cornwallis, that much to James’s amazement, the English general made him an offer. Cornwallis encouraged James to pretend to desert the redcoats and go back to the Americans, where he could spy and gather intelligence for the British!

Overnight, James became one of the most famous “double agents” of the Revolution, feeding the British with lies, while bringing back valuable information to the Americans. It was a risky mission that could lead to instant death if betrayed. After the war, Lafayette gave James the highest recommendation and urged that he be freed.  But it didn’t happen.

It was not until six years after Yorktown that the spying efforts of James were finally rewarded and he was given his freedom. To understand how such an injustice could happen, you need to visit the next stop, George Washington’s home of Mount Vernon.

Exhibit at Mount Vernon
Exhibit at Mount Vernon. Photo by Rich Grant

The Dilemma of Slavery at Mount Vernon

In 1799, George Washington and his wife owned 315 enslaved Africans, the sixth-largest number of enslaved humans in Virginia. Long after he died, in 1858, his home, Mount Vernon, and the surrounding grounds were taken over by a group called the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

Their mission was to keep alive the house, traditions and reputation of the most-famous founding father. It is a mission they have carried out with impeccable taste and a devotion to history. The estate, lovingly maintained, has a million visitors a year.

The museum uses 4D films and modern interactive exhibits to explain George Washington’s contributions to new generations. Working from a plaster death mask of Washington made the day after he died, they have scientifically gone back in time to recreate his bone structure and produce models of what his face looked like as a younger man. For the first time, you can scientifically see how a historical figure would have appeared at various times of his life.

Courageous New Exhibit on Washington’s Enslaved

But never before has Mount Vernon done anything as courageous, or as disturbing, as its current exhibit, which runs through September 2020. Called “Bound Together,”  this is the first up-close look at George Washington and slavery – a detailed examination of what he thought of slavery throughout his life, what the lives of the enslaved people were like, what they thought, ate, how they dressed, and what happened to them. And most challenging, what did they think of George?

Selecting 19 of the most documented enslaved at Mount Vernon, the exhibit traces the history of each person and how they interacted with the Washingtons.

You meet Hercules, George Washington’s personal chef who became renowned as one of the most famous cooks in America when George was president in Philadelphia in 1796. There was one problem. In Pennsylvania, any enslaved person living in the state for six months was free.

Washington knew that and shuffled his slaves out of Philadelphia and back to Virginia before the six months were up. Hercules was demoted from top chef back to Mount Vernon, assigned to “digging ditches, crushing gravel, making bricks and weeding the garden.”  Instead, Hercules ran away. Washington spent significant time and money trying to find him, but never succeeded.

Then there is Ona Judge. The personal servant of Martha Washington in Philadelphia, she was able to escape in 1796 and flee to Portsmouth, NH. In freedom, she lost privileges and was forced to work harder than she ever had for the Washingtons.

Yet she said she never regretted escaping slavery, though the Washingtons were outraged at her running away and ran ads and employed people to try to bring her back.

On the other side, there is Billy and Frank Lee, two brothers Washington purchased in 1768. Frank became butler at Mount Vernon, a position of immense power. Billy Lee became famous as Washington’s valet during the Revolution. George and Billy spent every day together for seven years of war.

There is ample proof that George Washington had great affection for Billy Lee, a horseman who many observers said was the only equal to Washington. They fought together, they hunted together and they rode together. Bill Lee is the only person Washington freed immediately on his death.

One of the most courageous of the new exhibits at Mount Vernon takes a frank and often shocking look at George Washington and his relationship with the 315 enslaved people he and Martha owned.
One of the most courageous of the new exhibits at Mount Vernon takes a frank and often shocking look at George Washington and his relationship with the 315 enslaved people he and Martha owned. Photo by Rich Grant

Washington Changed His Views on Slavery Over Time

In his youth, Washington accepted slavery as a natural part of life. He bought and sold slaves. When as a Southerner he took command of the Continental Army in Boston in 1775, he was shocked to see blacks serving equally beside whites in the army.

One of his first actions was to forbid this. But over time, Washington was to serve with many African American soldiers. His deep friendships with Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, two strong abolitionists, might have helped change his views.

And his views did change. He grew to abhor slavery and wish it was ended. In 1783 he wrote, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”

However, as a pragmatist, he knew it was not economically possible in his day. Enslaved humans would come by 1860 to represent more wealth than all the railroads, factories and banks in the U.S. – north and south. Twelve U.S. presidents owned slaves at some point in their life; seven of them, like Washington, while in office.

George Washington was a paradox. In his will, he freed all 124 of the slaves he owned and encouraged his wife Martha to free the others she owned and had brought into the marriage. We can’t know, but many historians theorize that Washington hoped other slave owners would follow his example.

In that, he would have been sadly disappointed. He was the only founding father to free his slaves. Not only did no one else follow him, but his own wife, instead of freeing her enslaved when she died, left them to four relatives, who broke up families and split the enslaved population into four groups.

The loyal butler Frank Lee, owned by Washington, was free. His wife and children, owned by Martha, remained enslaved and were broken up and sent to different owners.  This was an experience that the woman at our next stop knew well.

Illustrations, statues and videos tell the story of Harriet Tubman's life at the Harriet Tubman National Historic Site.
Illustrations, statues and videos tell the story of Harriet Tubman’s life at the Harriet Tubman National Historic Site. Photo by Rich Grant

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Site

While many have heard of Harriet Tubman, few know exactly what she did. That’s about to change. On Nov. 1, 2019, a major movie, “Harriet,” is being released to tell her life story. Until then, the new national historic site in Maryland does an excellent job using videos, historic statues, paintings, photos and interactive exhibits.

The park’s museum sits in flat farmland on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s part of the 125-mile-long Harriet Tubman Byway, a self-guided driving tour that connects 30 places associated with her life.

Born into slavery in 1822, Harriet, or “Minty” as she was known, gained international fame in her lifetime as the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. “Slavery,” she said, “is the next thing to hell.”

By her time, the depravity of slavery in America had reached new heights. The population of enslaved had grown to 4 million, making the United States the largest slave-holding nation on the planet. Worse, over time, the United States had created through laws a new system of chattel slavery, much different than existed in England, Spain or elsewhere.

In the U.S., slaves were considered property. Families could be sold apart and separated; marriage had no legal rights, husband and wife could be ripped from each other or from their children.

But, for the sake of political representation in Congress (which was based on total state population), the South insisted that slaves were human beings – or at least three-fifths of a human being, as was eventually agreed upon in compromise and put into the United States Constitution.

A concept for how the Harriet Tubman $20 bill would have looked, as reported and reproduced in the New York Times.
A concept for how the Harriet Tubman $20 bill would have looked, as reported and reproduced in the New York Times.

Harriet Tubman Nicknamed “Moses”

When Harriet’s especially cruel master, who had once beaten her with a rope, died in 1849, she realized she would be “sold south,” separated from her family and sent to work in the cotton fields of Mississippi. Instead, with the help of the regional Underground Railroad, traveling by night from safehouse to safehouse, she escaped to freedom in Philadelphia.

The story could have ended there, but she later said, “I was a stranger in a strange land.”  Her father, mother, brothers, sisters and friends were all still enslaved. She resolved, “I was free, and they should be free.”

Despite a price on her head and death or torture if she was caught, she returned to Maryland 13 times, and using disguises, the stars to guide her at night, carrying a pistol and with assistance from abolitionists, she helped 70 people escape to freedom.

Her journeys back into slave territory were unequaled and earned her the biblical nickname of “Moses.”  As many as 100,000 enslaved people used the Underground Railroad to escape to freedom before the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman’s Story

During the war, Harriet Tubman acted as spy, carried a sharpshooter rifle and fighting with 150 black Union soldiers on the Combahee River expedition, she helped free 750 enslaved people, guiding them to safety in boats by singing in the midst of a battle.

The museum is uplifting, placing Harriet Tubman where she should be, as one of the greatest of American heroes. She had been scheduled, under the Obama administration, to have her image placed on the $20 bill in 2020, replacing slave-owning President Andrew Jackson.

Under the Trump administration, the Treasury Department has suddenly canceled that change. Claiming security difficulties, they said the release of the new bill will be delayed until at least 2026, which, as the New York Times reported, would be past any possibility of President Trump canceling it altogether. Trump has suggested in previous comments that, if anything, she should be on the $2 bill.

Entrance to the new American Civil War Museum.
Entrance to the new American Civil War Museum. Photo by Rich Grant

The American Civil War Museum

The newest kid on the block opened in May 2019 in Richmond. This new museum is different from any other Civil War site in the nation. It is not a military museum of strategy, tactics and battlefields, but is rather a new way of looking at the war, focusing on how it affected all the people of America – women, enslaved and free Africans, immigrants in the North who were drafted against their will into the fighting, and civilians of the Confederacy, who saw the devastation and destruction of their economy and homes.

Those looking to tear down Confederate memorials need only visit this museum to discover a better idea.

Here are some of the most iconic historic items of the South:  Jeb Stuart’s feathered hat and revolver, the sword carried by Gen. Lewis Armistead at Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg, and a gigantic painting of the last meeting of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

A perfect example of how to interpret the Civil War is the 21st century is apparent throughout the new American Civil War Museum in Richmond. Here, an exhibit of iconic items from Confederate General Jeb Stuart, including his famous feathered hat, is displayed side by side with exhibits on the 200,000 African American soldiers who fought in the war.
A perfect example of how to interpret the Civil War is the 21st century is apparent throughout the new American Civil War Museum in Richmond. Here, an exhibit of iconic items from Confederate General Jeb Stuart, including his famous feathered hat, is displayed side by side with exhibits on the 200,000 African American soldiers who fought in the war. Photo by Rich Grant

These are part of a collection of 100,000 artifacts that came from the previous “Old School” Museum of the Confederacy. Now, these iconic items of the Confederacy are mixed with historic items telling a different story – the story of the 200,000 black soldiers, many freed slaves, who fought for the Union; stories of the courage and challenges that four million enslaved people had to face throughout the changing tides of fortune during the war; stories of the women and civilians devastated by this tragedy, and the huge toll that America paid with more than 700,000 deaths.

Today, the Civil War — and all American history — face the changing tides of public opinion. But for the first time, America (or at least the historians charged with preserving its history) seems ready to face and examine the country’s darkest periods. We can only hope that Mark Twain was correct, and for those who take the time to discover our history, they will find that: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

If You Go

All of the sites are relatively close in Maryland and Virginia. Of course, anyone interested in the subject should also visit the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Timed tickets are necessary for this outstanding museum on the Mall in nearby Washington, D.C.

Author Bio: Rich Grant is a freelance travel writer in Denver, Colorado and a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the North American Travel Journalists Association. He is, along with Irene Rawlings, co-author of “100 Things to Do in Denver Before You Die,” published by Reedy Press in 2016.