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
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
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
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
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.”
James Horn is vice president of research for the Colonial Williamsburg
Foundation. He is the author of numerous books and articles on colonial
America, most recently A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America (2005), and is currently editing the writings of Captain John Smith for the Library of America series.