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From Document to Drama: Interpreting Slavery at Tryon Palace

Did Governor Tryon have slaves?” “What was the African-American experience in colonial North Carolina?”

As recently as 1990, visitors to Tryon Palace, the reconstructed colonial capitol of North Carolina, learned only sketchy answers to these questions. The original Palace was completed in 1770 for William Tryon, colonial governor of North Carolina from 1765-1771 and of New York from 1771-1780. While documents recorded names of the English servants Governor Tryon brought to Brunswick, North Carolina, in 1764, and names of Tryon’s servants in New York in 1773, there was no listing of Tryon’ s household while he lived at the Palace in New Bern from June 1770 to July 1771. As to Tryon’ s slave holding, there were only scattered references to Tryon owning a man named Surry, purchasing a man named Tom, and paying taxes on eight black males in Brunswick county.

With this limited evidence, we allowed ourselves a comfortable approach to slavery, admitting that the Governor owned slaves but suggesting that these slaves were probably on one of Tryon’s other North Carolina properties. After all, we had no document that stated in so many words that there were slaves at the Palace. We didn’t have a responsibility, we reasoned, to interpret the lives of people we couldn’t prove were here.

But were we just letting ourselves off on a technicality? True, we couldn’t prove that Tom lived at the Palace. Tryon bought him while living in Brunswick in 1766 from James Murray, who “rejoice(d) to hear [that Tom] makes a good servant to so good a Master.” Yet in 1773, when fire destroyed Tryon’s New York home, housekeeper Patty Hatch gave her deposition that she “asked where was the Negro Tom, and she was told he was in the garret over the kitchen and she ran up and pulled him out of bed.” Was this the same Tom? If he was with Tryon’s household in Brunswick in 1766 and in New York in 1773, wasn’t it likely that he was at the Palace in 1770 and 1771?

And what of Surry? He was advertised as a runaway in New Bern’s North Carolina Gazette on July 25, 1777, described as “formerly the Property of Governor Tryon, and now belongs to the Estate of Isaac Edwards, deceased.” Edwards had been Tryon’s private secretary in New Bern. If Edwards purchased Surry, perhaps when Tryon moved to New York in 1771, might that not suggest that Surry, too, had been in New Bern? We still had no document proving Tom’s or Surry’s presence at the Palace, but the evidence we did have was too suggestive for us to continue to comfortably ignore slavery.

The rewriting of our living history drama tour for the Summer 1991 season offered a tantalizing opportunity; adding a slave character to the drama tour would introduce the topic of slavery to our visitors in an immediate, personal encounter. Rather than hearing a museum guide analyze the meaning of slavery in 18th-century society, visitors would hear a historical person speak for himself.

Conjectural personalities for Surry and Tom were drawn from the few documents we did have. Using James Murray’s description of Tom as a “good Servant” and Patty Hatch’s concern for Tom during the fire, we painted Tom as the favorite of the household ╤ someone who dealt with slavery through outward compliance, whatever his inner feelings may have been. Relying on Surry’s runaway ad, which described him as a “new Negro” or native African, we depicted Surry as a strong-minded man who had experienced freedom and who would eventually take his chances to regain it. The contrast between these conjectural personalities for Tom and Surry hinted at the diversity of slaves’ responses to slavery.

The new drama tour, entitled “Away to Alamance: Governor Tryon and the Regulators,” was to focus on Governor Tryon’s 1771 suppression of backcountry riots against high taxes and corrupt local government. (Alamance was the site of the Regulators’ defeat.) At four different points in the Tryon Palace tour, visitors would encounter a character interpreter portraying one of the historical people involved in this conflict. We chose Surry to be the character who would introduce visitors to some of the realities of slave life as he loaded supplies for the Governor’s march to the back country.

Much of Surry’s monologue recounts conjectural conversations with Tome as Surry contemplates the upcoming move of the Tryon household to New York. When Surry has asked why Tom was chosen to go to New York, Tom has replied, “You know what the eleventh commandment be? Best was everyone mind his own business” (a line borrowed from period African- American humor, as reported in a South Carolina newspaper). In an impassioned moment, Surry declares that he can’t play the same compliant role that he sees Tom play: “I was born in Africa — I remember when nobody owned me but me.” Surry has learned that he is to be sold to Mr. Edwards, and confides to the visitors his intention to run away if Mr. Edwards proves to be a harsh master. The encounter ends as Surry wryly asks the visitors to remember, should the Governor or Mr. Edwards ask about him, “Best way everyone mind his own business.”

“Away to Alamance” completed its second season in 1992, and Surry proved to be the most popular character with visitors. Visitors liked listening to Surry because it “sounds like they’re getting the scuttlebutt,” according to Ron “Sylki” Chappie, who portrayed Surry for two seasons. Visitors were left both laughing and thinking. Derrick Parker, who also played Surry in 1992, felt that “above all, it helped people understand or see some of the pains–emotional more so than physical–that slaves had to go through. You could see that people saw the pain, by the nodding or the look in their eyes.”

Both Chappie and Parker agreed that an African- American man could be their toughest audience member. “I would see in his face the same thing I would think,” said Parker, “‘what’s he doing up there in that slave suit?'” Once it became apparent that the monologue was not attempting to perpetuate stereotypes, Parker thought he could see the man thinking, “You’re right, you’re teaching a very good lesson.”

Our efforts to interpret slavery have been “a very good lesson” for all of us at Tryon Palace. Having a character interpreter portray life under slavery has opened the door for our building interpreters to discuss slavery as well. Since the building interpreters were to introduce the Surry character and give a brief follow-up after his monologue, their training for the drama tour focused on the documentation for Tom and Surry. A good follow-up interpretation was crucial; when visitors heard the character Surry contemplate running away, and then later learned from their Palace guides that the historical Surry did indeed run away, the visitors realized they had heard the story of an actual person.

It was initially a shock to many building interpreters to learn that we had rethought our interpretation of the historical evidence and that slavery would now be presented as part of the Palace story. After learning about the documentation in class, and seeing visitors” appreciation of the Surry character on tours, most interpreters became comfortable with Surry. As one interpreter commented in a survey after the first season, “Let’s always keep the slave [character]–He is a source of knowledge not given [on] any other part of the tour.”

Putting words in the mouths of historical characters requires careful research as well as a healthy respect for the realities of past people’s lives. The real Surry and Tom who lived and died 200 years ago could probably find fault with the details of our presentation, but we hope they would look kindly on our attempt to remember their experiences, and the experiences of their enslaved brothers and sisters.

Hilarie M. Hicks is Curator of Interpretation for Tryon Palace Historic Sites and Gardens in New Bern, North Carolina, a campus of several historic structures including the reconstructed home of North Carolina ‘s colonial governor. She was the author/researcher for the living history drama tour “Away to Alamance: Governor Tryon and the Regulators. ” An alumnus of the Cooperstown Graduate Program in History Museum Studies, she was formerly a historical interpreter for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Hicks, Hilarie M. “From Document to Drama: Interpreting Slavery at Tryon Palace,” The Docent Educator 2.3 (Spring 1993): 6-7.

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