Our first official tour began in the Governor’s Palace. The original palace was built in 1706 in Williamsburg, Virginia, and destroyed in 1781. It was reconstructed in 1931 on the very site it was originally built. It was the official residence of the royal governor when the British Crown ruled over the American colonies. “Most of the men who governed eighteenth-century Virginia were lieutenant governors—the titular governor appointed by the crown often elected not to hazard the sea crossing to a distant colony where disease and danger headed the greeting committee. Dunmore and his predecessor, Norborne Berkeley, Baron de Botetourt, were the only full governors who came to Virginia in the eighteenth century” (Theobald, 2033). Seven governors had resided in this palace: Alexander Spotswood, Francis Fauquier, Lord Botetourt, Hugh Drysdale, William Gooch, Robert Dinwiddie, and John Murray (also known as Lord Dunmore—a Scottish nobleman and the last royal governor of Virginia).
In Colonial Williamsburg, the reconstructed Governor’s Palace is meant to reflect the period when Lord Dunmore was governor between 1771 and 1775. After the American Revolution, he is succeeded by Patrick Henry and eventually Thomas Jefferson. Lord Dunmore was loyal to the English Crown during Revolution. The monarchs at the time were King George III and Queen Charlotte. King George III (if you’ve seen Hamilton, then yes. THAT GUY!) found governing the Thirteen Colonies quite difficult mainly because corruption, politics, legal action, violence and financial subjugation were used to try to tame the disadvantaged majority. During the American Revolution, Lord Dunmore promised freedom to Virginia slaves who joined his British forces to help him fight against the colonists (Zinn, 2005).
The Elephant in the Room
Now, to address the Elephant in the Room: I am African American and sometimes visiting history museums can be a complicated endeavor, especially when I am forced to confront my ancestral past in a way that both glamorizes and reveals the destructive reality of the people being exploited (I once suddenly broke down into tears when I saw a slave collar on display). This experience was louder than ever when I visited the Governor’s Palace. I happen to reading Howard Zinn’s A Peoples’ History of the United States––a powerful book that lays out the true conflicts of interests between “conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex,” (Zinn, 2005)––and I can’t help but connect the parallels between the essays in the book and the oppressive wealth of the palace.
When I entered the Governor’s Palace, despite being a tourist and quite obviously in a safe environment, it was disturbing to me how unwelcomed I felt having traveled into the past to see the combination of the beautiful and the ugly. I was filled with a heightened sense of awareness and in the back of my mind was the knowledge that slaves were here––in this very spot. And that thought did not go away.
African Slaves in the Virginia Colony
I did appreciate that the tour guides were honest about the nature of the landmarks and the cruelty that occurred. Some of the first sets of facts we were informed of was that slavery indeed occurred on that very spot and that only 2% of Africans were free while the vast 98% were enslaved. 50% of the Virginia population, in fact, consisted of enslaved people. The “frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred…, the relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave” made American slavery unusually cruel. The Virginia colony grew corn for subsistence and tobacco for export (Zinn, 2005). However, these industries were difficult to control since slave revolts occurred regularly.
The Entrance Hall
Upon entering the Governor’s Palace, the first thing that hits you hard is the excessive display of muskets, pistols, and swords that line the walls like intimidating wallpaper. Their purpose was to remind guests, slaves, and servants of the governor’s power. As our tour guide said, “Your opinion of the room depended on what side of the musket you were on.” The wealthy and those in power might see the room as a display of imperialist power while the oppressed saw it as a reminder of their pain and suffering.
“The palace stood as a symbol of British rule over all Virginians, but in keeping with the hierarchical social system of the times, not all Virginias received equal treatment at the door” (Colonial Williamsburg, 2022).
Upper Middle Chamber
Chy and I were guided through the elegantly decorated pantry, parlor, dining room, and second floor hallway before being guided into the Upper Middle Chamber. Although originally a state room, it was converted into a private suite in the 1750s (Colonial Williamsburg, 2022). It is thought that Lady Dunmore, Lord Dunmore’s wife, used this room “to spend private time with her children as well as to entertain suitable Virginia ladies” (Colonial Williamsburg, 2022).
The Daughter’s Room
We did not get to see the other upstairs rooms, but we did see The Daughter’s room with its beautiful bedding. “By aristocratic British standards, the Palace was relatively small… The Bedchamber over the Dining Room is interpreted as the room of Dunmore’s eldest two daughters and their governess, Mademoiselle Francois Galli. As interpreted now, the two girls share the large bed and the governess sleeps in the smaller bed” (Colonial Williamsburg, 2022).
The Ballroom and Supper Room
An ongoing joke among tourists is the unique choice of interior decoration within the Ballroom and Supper Room. The more neutral colored rooms were used for “more practical and business-related” affairs, but colorful rooms reflected “the latest fashions of British high society” (Colonial Williamsburg, 2022). As odd as the color choices might seem, they were used by the King himself. To keep the room warm, warming machines were installed. During a ball, the hosts and guests danced the minuet. Portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte decorated the walls at the end of the room.
As for the Supper Room, it was the loudest room with its bright green walls, and loud rose and green carpet! It was here that guests dined after dancing. Is it strange that I sort of liked this room? I do like the color combination of pink and green, and I do think the combination worked during its day. Would I actually decorate my dining room like this? Probably not.
I am of the belief that history is both fascinating and uncomfortable and that one’s feelings of it vary depending on which side of it you are on, and what realities you are willing to face and accept. This strange, beautiful, and terrible palace is part of my history as a member of the African diaspora. And that’s what history is: a mingle of terror and esteem, no matter what country you are from.
What I got from visiting the Governor’s Palace was not only a reminder of the pain and suffering my ancestors endured, but also feelings of pride and graciousness because of the sacrifices my people made. Nearly everything was built by their hands, and they fought for the privileges I enjoy today. No matter who you are, white, black, or other, go see the palace. Confronting it will help us heal from the pain and learn invaluable lessons on how we can move forward with our present.
American Battlefield Trust (2022). Lord Dunmore. Retrieved from https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/lord-dunmore
Colonial Williamsburg (20022). Virtual Tour. Retrieved from https://virtualtours.colonialwilliamsburg.org/palace/
Theobald, Mary M. (2003). The Governour’s Lady Mistresses of the Palace. Colonial Williamsburg Journal. Retrieved from https://research.colonialwilliamsburg.org/Foundation/journal/spring03/wives.cfm
Zinn, H. (2005). A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.