Purvis Young’s Untitled; Photo: Travis Fullerton/© Virginia Museum of Fine Arts/© Estate of Purvis Young/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Four hundred years ago this month, Virginia became the birthplace of American democracy, with the inaugural meeting of the (all-male) first General Assembly in Jamestown. The year 1619 also marked the first arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia. These two events laid the groundwork for a painful legacy of servitude and racism, but as Virginia honors its quadricentennial, the Commonwealth is attempting to reckon with those issues, putting them in context with present-day social movements such as #MeToo and the fight for voting rights.
“There’s a lot to unpack in what happened in 1619,” says Kathy Spangler, the executive director of 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution. “We wanted to be relevant in a contemporary way, and we decided to be thoughtful about integration and representative of all the people that are part of Virginian and American history.”
At the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond, for instance, Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality (through March 2020) tells the stories of such Virginia-born figures as 19th-century educator Mary S. Peake and tennis player Arthur Ashe. Nearby, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South (through November 17) highlights the ways African-American artists have tackled racism, gender, and class using cast-off materials, often with little or no formal training.
Visitors to the Historic Triangle (Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown) can still expect costumed reenactments, but they’ll also find a signature exhibit spotlighting little-heard voices, including enslaved Africans, Powhatan women, and the dozens of English women who were recruited to stabilize the colonies by becoming wives—for the price of 150 pounds of tobacco.
“The topic was long overdue,” says archaeologist Beverly “Bly” Straube, who helped curate Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia, at the Jamestown Settlement (through January 2020). Her team discovered materials related to Angelo, the first documented female slave, and a “ducking chair” that was used in a waterboarding-like punishment for women “who gossiped,” according to Straube. “A woman’s voice was really her only weapon, and ducking was meant to shame you.”
Early women colonists faced extreme isolation and often had no legal standing, and in most cases all we know about them today is their names. Straube’s team sought to recognize them by telling their stories in the special exhibition and lining the exhibit stairs with those names. “What we’re saying now is that they were here; they had an impact; they were important.”