Philadelphia’s American Revolution museum is elevating Black voices. Interpreters say their roles are complicated by old wounds.
Noah Lewis, who portrays Revolutionary War hero, Edward “Ned” Hector, is one of four living history interpreters in a new summer program at the Museum of the American Revolution.
To be honest, it was anger that motivated Noah Lewis to start a new career as a living-history interpreter, portraying the life of American Revolutionary War soldier Edward “Ned” Hector.
Hector was a hero of the 1777 Battle of Brandywine, where he refused an order from his commander that all Continental forces were to abandon their weapons, wagons, and horses and flee for their lives as British troops were advancing.
Instead, Hector declared: “The enemy shall not have my team; I shall save my horses and myself.”
In addition to driving his team of horses to safety, Hector hastily gathered up a pile of abandoned weapons, tossed them in his wagon, and escaped under fire from the pursuing British.
Lewis, 67, was angry that Hector’s story and those of other Black Revolutionary War soldiers had not been taught in his American history classes when he was younger.
He was also angry that he had not discovered the books that told that history until after he reached his 40s.
Starting Wednesday, Lewis began to portray Hector the war hero at Philly’s Museum of the American Revolution as part of its “Meet the Revolution” series this summer.
It is part of a new initiative, the African American Interpretive Program (AAIP), designed to elevate the stories of Black Americans who lived and fought during the Revolutionary War. Sometimes telling these stories provokes emotional conflict for the interpreters and pain for some Black people who see enslavement reenactments across the United States.
“I got angry at myself for having assumed that Black people had not done much, and if they had done something, it was just manual labor and less meaningful,” the Upper Darby resident said Tuesday.
Most Americans don’t learn about free Black people, like Hector, Lewis said. After the war, Hector lived in the Norristown area and died in 1834 at about age 90.
Hector Street in Conshohocken was named for him in 1850. “That tells how much people thought of him,” he said.
This summer’s Meet the Revolution program is part of a two-year initiative sponsored by a grant from Comcast NBCUniversal. Lewis is one of four Black costumed living-history interpreters who will appear at the museum through Sept. 6.
In addition to the summer series, the project will have a 30-minute one-man theatrical show about James Forten in the fall.
Forten, born free in Philadelphia in 1766, is known for taking over the sail-making company from his employer and becoming a wealthy abolitionist. He lived on Lombard Street in Philadelphia.
At age 14, Forten was working on a Continental privateer ship, assisting with the artillery, when he was captured by British forces and imprisoned for seven months.
Next summer, the museum will offer a Living History Institute for teenagers and young adults to introduce them to museum work and career opportunities.
On July 16, the weekend the museum’s program launched, interpreter Brenda Parker gave presentations on how free and bonded Black women used skills they brought with them from African countries to make soaps, waxes, and hand-dyed textiles.
Parker usually works as an interpreter at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, where she portrays an enslaved woman.
She said that she felt a sense of relief in Philadelphia because she is not constantly in-character as a bonded person and can interact with museum visitors as a free woman.
Still, she said, that sometimes, while in period costume, she has had troublesome encounters.
Last Friday, while in costume, Parker entered an elevator with Michael Idriss, the African American Interpretive Fellow in charge of managing the museum’s program, when an older white man with silver hair, casually remarked to Parker: “You’d better get back to work.” The Inquirer witnessed the encounter.
As the man stepped off the elevator, both Idriss and Parker said the cost of telling the stories of enslaved people is that interpreters must cope with microaggressions where some white visitors feel emboldened to order them to complete their work on time.
Earlier that day, Idriss and Adrienne Whaley, director of Education and Community Engagement at the museum, said they are preparing interpreters to cope with the stress and emotions of portraying people who were considered less than human.
“If you’re doing African American research and history, you are going to come through some traumatic incidents that you have to internalize as you’re doing the research,” Idriss said. He said it was important for interpreters to practice self-care.
Added Whaley: “It’s easy to want to focus on the celebratory stories that make us feel really good about ourselves as a nation and don’t ask us to challenge some of the things we might have been, and might still be.
“When the founders wrote the Declaration of Independence, they unleashed something that goes far beyond what they realized they were unleashing. The power of that document suggests that all of us deserve to be in this world equally. … If that is true, based on that word that we hold as the moral center of our nation, we have to be willing to fix our problems as opposed to ignoring them.”
Noah Lewis, who was not part of the encounter in the elevator, said that sometimes Black people have problems watching a living historian reenact the life of an enslaved person.
“It goes past history. It goes to right to our heart and to the marrow of our bones,” Lewis said. “It’s a sore, and if you touch a sore on a person, they will react negatively. We are still feeling the ramifications of being wounded. We bear that burden of having been harmed.”
History of Lewis’ historic quest
Nearly 30 years ago, Lewis, whoalso had careers as a biomedical equipment engineer and as owner of an electronics repair shop, began researching his family’s history.
He wanted to find out if he had ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. That’s how he stumbled across Hector’s story after reading a book written by Philadelphia historian Charles L. Blockson.
Hector was not just a wagon driver, he learned, but was also listed in Army records as a “bombardier,” someone who loaded and fired cannons during the war.
Lewis started telling Hector’s story to his daughter’s fourth grade classroom about 25 years ago. Then, with the encouragement of several teachers, he began to take his presentation on the road.
He discovered details of Hector’s story in an obituary published in the Norristown Herald and Advertiser on Jan. 15, 1834. It can be found on Lewis’ website, nedhector.com.
Lewis said it is important for Black interpreters to tell these neglected stories.
“These are people who paid the ultimate price for their lives and didn’t get proper credit for what they did, and that bothers me,” he said.
“We need to let people know that the freedoms they are enjoying if they are Americans, they owe part of that freedom to Black people who helped to get it.”
More historical stories at the museum
Later this summer, in addition to Parker and Lewis, the museum will offer work by two other interpreters.
Cheyney McKnight, founder of Not Your Momma’s History, will tell stories about Quansheba, a woman of African descent who lived as both an enslaved, and later a free woman in the same block where the museum, at 101 S. 3rd St. is located, during the Revolutionary War.
McKnight will talk about the day-to-day life of an enslaved woman as well as the skills and trade business of a pepper pot soup vendor. She will present demonstrations the week of July 26 through July 30, with additional dates in August.
Also, Kalela Williams, director of writing for the Mighty Writers program, will portray the life of Helena Harris, a Black schoolteacher in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary era, over three weekends in August, beginning Aug. 13-15.