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History in black and white

Sunday, May 19, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- With her petticoats and apron, Nora Martin looks the picture of an upstanding Philadelphian from the late 1700s as she strolls the city's historic district and engages curious tourists.

But the reception is often chilly. As a black woman, many assume she is portraying a slave.

"The discomfort, you can see it in people's faces," she said.

That discomfort may be one of the reasons Philadelphia and other places have trouble recruiting black Colonial re-enactors. Though free blacks held esteemed and important positions in their 18th century communities, it's a history lesson re-enactors say is lost on many blacks and whites alike.

"Some people just don't want to go there; they feel that they're going to be blamed for slavery," said Martin, who walks through Philadelphia's historic district and talks with tourists about life in the newly formed nation from the view of Clara Porter, a fictitious midwife, wife, mother, and free black woman.

"Other people get indignant because of their misconceptions that African Americans in the 18th century all came over in slave ships," she said. "We're not all tragic figures."

Martin and her colleagues portray life in Philadelphia from 1774 to 1787, the year the Constitution was ratified. It was a time when some free blacks owned businesses and many others were in respected trades, working as bakers, carpenters, tailors and caterers.

Of the 40 people who portray these fictionalized early Americans, only three are black, said Mark Saxton, program manager for Historic Philadelphia Inc., a city agency that recruits and hires the actors for the summer stints.

"It's not a job for every actor," he said, noting that the re-enactors wear heavy woolen garments in the city's summer heat and can't break character amid the constant din of beeping taxis and ringing cell phones.

Tough recruiting

Old Salem, a restored Moravian village and "living history museum" in Winston-Salem, N.C., placed ads several years back in black-audience newspapers and historically black colleges in the region to attract black actors, museum official Brian Coe said.

It didn't work. Just five of Old Salem's 40 re-enactors are black.

At Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, Guy Peartree is the only black performer. He believes the reasons for the lack of representation are complex, including low pay and the improvisational nature of the work, but acknowledged the difficulty in presenting a role that visitors might sometimes resist.

"I was working in a field side-by-side with white men, and some black students walked by and said to me, 'You weren't there,"' said Peartree, who now plays Guy Scott, a mine foreman who lived in the region. "They completely denied my existence."


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