VIRGINIA'S HISTORIC Triangle includes Yorktown, site of the British surrender in 1781; Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the 1600s; and Colonial Williamsburg, a reconstructed, 18th-century living museum.
At all three sites, multi-media exhibits, special events and historic re-enactors in period costume interpret the cataclysmic convergence of European, Native American and African cultures that helped shape our country.
The sites are located within minutes of each other and are made even more accessible and affordable with various multi-attraction admission deals. Pass-holders also may use the free shuttle service that travels to the historic sites as well as shopping and dining destinations.
For some inexpensive fun, go bird-watching along the 23-mile Colonial Parkway or picnicking at Chickahominy Riverfront Park. Other nearby attractions include Busch Gardens and Wild Water Kingdom, museums, golf, beaches and outlet shopping.
VisitWilliamsburg.com provides information on the area, including attractions, restaurants, shopping, arts, outdoor activities and special events. There's also a list of more than 130 lodgings of every type and price.
In the early part of the 18th century, Virginia was America's largest and richest colony as the fortunes of the planter class rose with the success of tobacco farming and the free labor of Africans brought there to work on plantations.
Williamsburg was Virginia's capital city from 1699 to 1780. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Patrick Henry and other Founding Fathers strolled in and out of homes, taverns and businesses there as they prepared for the Revolutionary War and crafted the tenets of a new nation.
After the state capitol was moved to Richmond late in the war, Williamsburg became a quiet college town.
In 1926, a Williamsburg minister with a passion for history, W.A.R. Goodwin, persuaded millionaire philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. to share his vision of restoring Williamsburg to its early glory. Their ambitious plan transformed the city into an outdoor living history museum.
Of the more than 500 buildings that encompass Colonial Williamsburg today, 88 are original, the rest having undergone reconstruction so intricate only an expert would be able to tell the replicas from the originals.
The reconstructed town's popularity was immediate - but not without critics.
For in recreating Colonial life at Williamsburg, Rockefeller had chosen to focus only on the gentry society, the rich planter class, ignoring the common folk and the 52 percent black population that also had lived there.
"Colonial Williamsburg was a very negative experience," recalled Weller Thomas, my husband and co-publisher of Pathfinders Travel Magazine. He grew up in nearby Mathews County.
"You had to wear the Colonial clothing if you worked in the restaurants - which were really the only places you saw blacks. It felt demeaning and offered nothing positive about the black experience. I personally chose to work in the kitchen, behind the scenes."
Though African-American interpreters are more commonplace now at historic sites, with people as diverse as Billie Holiday in Baltimore or Crispus Attucks in Boston being interpreted by re-enactors, it was still a novel idea in 1979 when Colonial Williamsburg introduced its first African-American history interpretation.
Rex Ellis was named assistant director for African-American interpretation in 1986 and later became the first director of Colonial Williamsburg's African American Interpretation and Presentations Department. Today he is associate director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
But it was his successor, Christy S. Coleman, who really got people to take notice after coming on board in 1994. A slave auction was re-enacted on Duke of Gloucester Street, the main thoroughfare in the center of the historic area, before a crowd of 2,000 people and over the protests of NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The re-enactment was not repeated.
Today, as it celebrates its 30th anniversary of African-American programming, Colonial Williamsburg has a well-deserved reputation for publishing scholarly research as it also serves as a living classroom on 18th-century life. Who knew there were African-American blacksmiths and cobblers? Or well-dressed, free persons of color who also owned slaves? Where else could you learn of the many interracial marriages between the Irish and African-Americans?
"Everybody particularly loves the fine clothing of the gentry class," said Patricia Brooks, manager of African American Initiatives. "But unless your name was Peyton Randolph or Thomas Jefferson, you were poor and just barely scraping by."
Still, that doesn't stop a visitor from imagining the lifestyles of the rich and Colonial while strolling through well-manicured gardens, dining on prime rib at one of Williamsburg's restored taverns, or admiring the silver and fine china at the governor's mansion. And it's much more preferably to ride around town in a fine carriage than walk along hot, dusty streets.
Well-designed programs on subjects as diverse as music, dancing, runaway slaves, herbs, medicines, culinary, voting and land rights entertain as well as educate, thrusting passionate visitors like Dave and Susan Jeffries into Colonial history.
"I've learned so much since being here," said Dave Jeffries, a Californian visiting with his wife. "We were at Jamestown yesterday and it was just fascinating the information we learned about all of the cultures that were here."
For general information and details on 30th anniversary of African-American programming events, go to www.history.org or call
Children in particular will enjoy climbing aboard the replicas of the three ships that brought English settlers to Jamestown, along the banks of the James River. Tours start in the stunning, $17.5 million Visitor Center, which opened in 2007.
Detailed exhibits allow visitors to see a reconstructed Powhatan Indian village, hear African Bantu language spoken and walk the streets of an English town. Tours are led by National Park Service guides and re-enactors. Right now, there is a unique opportunity to watch archaeologists at work unearthing objects from the 1607 James Fort site.
The Voorhees Archaearium museum, which sits here along the James River, displays items such as pottery and even a skeleton found at the dig.
For information, go to
http://historicjamestowne.org, or call 757-229-0412 or 1-757-229-1733.
A group of school kids listened to the re-enactors with a level of attention history teachers would envy. The trained professionals portraying Revolutionary War soldiers answered every question, down to the history behind the fabric and buttons on their militia coats.
"Was Paul Revere real?" asked a student touring Yorktown recently.
"Yes, but that was in Massachusetts," the re-enactor replied. "Virginia did have Jack Jouett, who like Revere warned about an impending British invasion."
Not surprisingly, a discussion of the American Revolution is much more interesting when you get to help load a cannon and watch as it's fired. Visitors to this section of the Colonial National Historic Park also can view a film about the final major Revolutionary War battle at Yorktown, see tents used by George Washington's army and other artifacts, and drive through battlefields. *
For more information, go to www.nps.gov/colo or call 757-898-2410.
P.J. Thomas is editor and co-publisher of Pathfinders Travel Magazine for People of Color, a nationally distributed publication founded in 1997, and co-host of "Travel with Pathfinders" on WPGC-AM in Washington, D.C. Contact her at