Even after Emancipation Proclamation, slaves still skeptical


Colonial Williamsburg actor-interpreters perform ‘Promise of Freedom’ at the Hall of Philosophy Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

A common misconception is that after former President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, everything became suddenly easier for slaves. But 10 actor-interpreters from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation disproved that theory in the performance “Promises of Freedom” at the Interfaith lecture at 2 p.m. in the Hall of Philosophy Wednesday.

Many slaves were skeptical of the legitimacy of Lincoln’s offer. They had been promised freedom before and had it taken away. Other slaves were left without families because their children and spouses had been sold. For some slaves, the Emancipation Proclamation did not even apply to them.

A slave named Peter, played by Richard Josey, acted as the voice of caution and the narrator throughout the performance. In between scenes, Peter took the stage alone. He stopped time to tell stories and offer insight about the previous scene and often gave the audience an entirely different perspective about what they had just seen.

The show opened with excited shouts from backstage of “Oh my Lord!” and “It’s true!” about the Emancipation Proclamation. Peter explained their master had just set them free, but Peter was skeptical. He left the audience with an ominous “If you know it like I know it, everything ain’t always what it seem,” as he left the stage and two women entered.

The two women were slaves who had heard rumors of freedom but were waiting for a copy of the Proclamation, which they called the “Freedom Papers,” to arrive. When another slave brought the paper to them, their excitement did not last long. They soon learned that the freedom was not offered to slaves in Union states or slaves whose master was allied with the British.

This minor clarification changed the lives of many slaves. The fact that freedom was offered to some slaves but not all of them seemed counterintuitive. To many slaves, the Proclamation might have seemed more like an attempt at political control and an effort to end the war than an actual recognition of the slaves’ rights.

“So you had to fight against your master to be free. That ain’t too bad,” Peter said after the scene. “But freedom wasn’t for all negroes — just those who would fight with the British against the American and for those whose master was American, not for all.”

When a child is born to a slave, that child takes the status of the mother, said one of the actor-interpreters during the Q-and-A session. So if a mother was a slave, the child was a slave. This meant children could be taken from their families and sold at any time.

One woman faced this at the auction block, when she was about to be sold and her children and husband were missing. Clutching her daughter’s doll, she worried and feared that she would never see her children again. But the slaves around her could not comfort her. The best kind of comfort they could offer was to tell her that worrying would not change anything.

Eventually, the enslaved situation they were in before being sold became the lesser of two evils. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves were learning that freedom was not a blanket concept. Near the end of the war between the British and Americans, there was a law that masters could free their slaves, Peter said. But shortly after that, a law changed the rules of the game and allowed masters to reclaim those freed slaves if they had not left Virginia.

“We talking about freedom, ain’t we?” Peter said. “I just don’t think that white folks’ freedom and negro freedom is the same thing.”

Throughout the play, the characters turned to two main sources of comfort: acceptance of the situation and strength to overcome it, and religion. One scene put the audience in a church, where a black preacher read Scripture and thanked God that they were even able to meet together.

For many slaves, religion was their only source of strength. But before the Civil War, slaves were allowed to worship only on Sundays, the preacher explained. After Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, all black churches in some southern states were forced to close, one of the actors said during the Q-and-A period.

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” the preacher said, quoting Scripture.

And as he left the stage and his voice faded, he continued to repeat it and identify examples of it, as if to remind the audience that strength comes through faith.

But even so, there are skepticisms about faith, even to the religious Peter. Many slaves were convinced that if they were patient, the Lord would bring them freedom. Others thought that slaves had to be proactive in getting their freedom, even if it meant running away. And still other slaves chose a combination of the two extremes.

A lot of slaves chose not to leave immediately upon receiving their freedom. Some did not know what to do, or how to provide for their families, one of the interpreters said during the Q-and-A.

Peter’s choice, though, was clear. He admitted that he did not know if the Emancipation Proclamation would be enforced. He assumed that, even while he was addressing the audience, someone was trying to overturn the Proclamation and find a way to capture slaves again.

When his friends called to him from backstage, asking if he was ready to go to the house, Peter answered to the audience instead.

“No. I ain’t going to the house,” Peters said. “No more. Y’all go ahead and stay if you want. I think I’m gonna take me a different path.”

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