Historian Janice Canaday Returns to Colonial Williamsburg After its COVID-19 Shutdown

4 people posing outside
Pictured are some of the  actors/Interpreters from Colonial Williamsburg. Photo Credit: Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg

Janice Canaday has been a historian at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia for twelve years, but she has been a part of the historic district’s “family” for many more. She shuttled her six young children back and forth to the sprawling 173-acre campus of the “living history” museum when they worked there as “interpreters,” wearing period costumes and speaking in the language of the historical characters they portrayed. Colonial Williamsburg (colonialwilliamsburg.org) closed for several months as the Covid-19 pandemic raged in the country. It reopened in June in time for the summer season and Canaday eagerly went back to work.

She spoke to TNJ.com about her roots in Williamsburg, the impact of the predominantly Black population that existed there during the colonial era, and changes to the exhibits in the wake of Covid-19.   

TNJ.com: How did you start to work at Colonial Williamsburg?

Canaday: All my children worked here at one time or another. I had to be with them because they were minors then, and I ended up participating. Once they got older, I applied for a job and I now work here as a historian and museum educator. It fed my curiosity about my own history because I was born and raised in Williamsburg and my family has always been here.

TNJ.com: Are visitors generally familiar with the historical figures portrayed in costume?

Canaday: They generally only know very prominent figures. For example, they know forefathers, but not foremothers, who are not really noticed until we bring them to the forefront.

TNJ.com: Is it true that the majority of Colonial Williamsburg’s population were Black?

Canaday: Yes, 52.4 percent of the town was Black.

TNJ.com: Describe some of the Black personalities who are discussed and/or interpreted in the Colonial Williamsburg experience?

Canaday: Well, Lydia Cooper was a laundress. Lydia Broadnax was enslaved in Williamsburg. After getting her freedom, she went to Richmond and opened a boarding house. Adam Waterford was a cooper. He made barrels and buckets and had a business where Williamsburg Lodge is now located. There was also Caesar who was barber to the gentry and was allowed a business of sorts. He used the money he made to free his family. So there were people running businesses, so to speak. On Sundays there were markets run by the enslaved that sold items like chickens and eggs.

TNJ.com: Explain the trades that are part of the experience.

Canaday: We’ve got weaving, spinning, and making fabric. We raise the sheep right here in Williamsburg and shear them, clean the wool and make blankets for the horses, and decorative blankets in 18th century patterns. We have blacksmiths forging metal, tinsmiths, and outdoor carpenters.

There is more than enough space out there for social distancing. Visitors can actually see the men planking boards, carving shingles and the like. We also have the bookbinder, where visitors can see the paper printed and the book get bound. All the trades are still here and rotate through the month.

TNJ.com: How has the pandemic affected the experience? 

Canaday: There aren’t very large tour groups going into our flagship buildings like the Palace or the Capitol. They are going in groups of twenty to twenty-five people every fifteen minutes. Now we have someone in costume or an interpreter who will entertain them, engage them in conversation, and interpret for them while they’re waiting. Also, our trades people have gone into larger spaces, like the newly renovated D. Wallace Gallery which has much more space to walk around in.

Visitors can go in and see the trades people, as they would have in the previous smaller buildings. We also have lots of carriages. We don’t have carriage rides yet because of social distancing, but they are there as an interpretive tool. We still have the animals. People can go to see them and get information about the rare breeds we have – where they’re from, and how we take care of them.

At the Randolph House and in many similar spaces, we have opened up the backyards. This gives us the opportunity to shift the focus and talk about a different aspect of the town. Visitors now have a chance to go into the backyard behind the building and see exactly who comprised the labor force and how they were moving this town forward, as well as the economy of Virginia. We also get to see how this labor force brought the African continent with them. They didn’t leave all of their culture behind; it was never totally removed. They know about raising crops from Africa and also knowledge of irrigation systems. They greatly impacted agriculture and horticulture in colonial Williamsburg. We’re showing African life, African culture behind these buildings.

TNJ.com: What’s the importance of the Raleigh Tavern exhibit? Will it open as before? 

Canaday: Raleigh Tavern was a major slave auction site, a meeting place for legislators and those resisting British rule. It catered to the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. The exhibit is there as a visual, but visitors won’t be able to go inside.

TNJ.com: Are masks mandatory for visitors?

Canaday: When you come into a building you have to wear a mask to protect yourself and others. When visitors are outdoors we suggest that they wear a mask as well.