I refuse to be a Reenactor, and here’s why


Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines a reenactor as “a person who participates in reenactments of historical events”. What I notice is lacking from the definition, and rightly so, is a historian. I once was a reenactor but after years of studying, research, growth, and practice I became a living historian.

As a young Black man I am often asked by my peers, family, and other people in the Black community, “Why do you reenact?” and “Do you have to be a slave?”  I must admit when I first began reenacting in 2001 I was excited to talk to my white friends about reenacting but I tended to hide my hobby from my Black friends like it was a shameful deed. I was part of a reenacting unit based out of Atlanta that portrayed members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, popularized in the 1989 motion picture Glory. As a teen I loved racing through the woods to battle rebel soldiers, watching the explosions from the muzzle of a black powder rifle, hearing horses racing from one end of the field to another and witnessing the look of enjoyment on my fellow reenactors faces as we played soldier.

I attended battle reenactment after battle reenactment and every so often I would see a soldier or a groups of them that looked different. Not in physical appearance so much, more so their uniforms, clothing, and the way they carried themselves. They had a soldierly barring and appeared as if they stepped out of a wet plate. The shy side of me would come out when I saw them and I was too afraid to speak. Two years after my sojourn in the world of reenacting in 2003, I attended the Battle of Olustee in Florida. It was my first time to the event and when I arrived my eyes locked on the nearly 100 Black men representing members of the 54th Mass and other United States Colored Troops (USCT). I was astounded, I had fought with a handful of Black reenactors before, but this was like being in Mecca. The quality of impressions varied, but among them were a hand full of those soldiers who had “the look” that I was too nervous to speak to. I camped next to the group hoping that somehow they would come and talk to me or I would muster the courage approach them. As fate would have it two of them saw me struggling to cook and offered some assistance. It turned out they were LeRoy Martin and Victor Young from Illinois. Over the years we kept in touch they befriended me, mentored me, and they helped introduce me to the where to find better gear clothing, and material culture. They opened the door for me to the authentic Black community of living historians.

By 2009 my military kit was improving but my civilian impression left much to be desired. I was sitting on my bed watching TV when I got a call from a man named Jim Butler. He invited me to an invitation only reenactment in a living history town called Westville located in Limpkin, GA. I excitedly jumped at the chance. The event was representing a small Georgia town in 1860. I was to portray an enslaved man named Nathan who was owned by the wealthiest family in town, the McDonalds. I joined in the online group discussions and the periodic conference calls between those portraying members of the McDonald family and their household staff, that included myself, a white gardener, and an Irish servant.

The event exposed me to whole new world of reenacting. Participants included a who’s who of the Civil War reenacting community. I felt amazed and honored to be among them. Unlike in a real town in 1860s rural Georgia, I was the only Black face participating in the event. Most of the first day I followed the man portraying Mr. McDonald around and stayed close to the kid portraying his son. Other than the event organizers and members of the household most reenactors did not speak to me. That all changed when the sun went down. Hank Trent, the man portraying the gardener and a man who lives and breathes historical interpretation, invited me to accompany him to the tavern set up in town, and I obliged. When we arrived it was already dark and the tavern had come to life. The tavern flickered with candle light, and as we approached I could see the outline of men and women on the front porch. From outside one could hear the roar of men laughing, debating secession, and drunkenly singing minstrel songs. As Hank and I neared the wooden tavern steps I paused for a moment, I thought to myself “would an enslaved man walk through the front door or the back?” Hank looked at me and said “come on now, you’re with me,” and I hesitantly followed him in. There were only a few steps no more than five but it seemed like it took me an hour to ascend the stairs. Every step I took I felt the eyes of those on the porch watching me. If their eyes had been daggers I would have met the same fate as Cesar. The only thing going through my head was “I will be safe inside, the drunken revelers will certainly be too distracted to notice me.” I was wrong. Like a comedy movie, as Hank and I walk in the music and conversation pauses and everyone looks up for a moment then went back to their prior conversations. Hank and I stood at the bar. I was nervous, knowing no one and being the only Black man at the event. The bar tender approached us and Hank belted out “Get this nigger a drink!” and slapped me on the back in a sign of friendship. If I thought walking in was awkward, Hanks words seemed to suck all the air out of the room. A group of men stood up and invited me to sit with them at their table. They bought me more drinks and bombarded me with questions. One man seemingly fascinated with a Black man at a reenactment inquired “Who are you and where did you come from?” I proceed to give them my character’s information, but another man said “No, who are you really and where do you come from?” With the uttering of a racial slur I at once became everyone’s “best friend”.

After the event I was invited to many more events. I had found a subculture within the reenacting community called authentic/campaigners. These were the same caliber of guys I had seen as a kid and was too afraid to ask questions, the similar caliber of guys as LeRoy and Victor form Olustee. I felt like I had arrived. I was brought into the fold. I would be invited to invitation only events, reenactors would give me amazing clothing and some would have me over their homes to meet their families. I was living in a young person’s reenacting dream, but as the adage goes if something seems too good to be true it probably is. I would notice some of my “friends” make veiled racist remarks or racialized comments about Black people. Being young and enjoying the free clothing and the attention being bestowed upon me, I regretfully said nothing.

I do not remember the exact moment but I had a breaking point where I could no longer sit ideally by and not speak. There was an interpretive hole in me and all the “cool” clothing, attention and gear could not fill it. My college courses at my alma mater, Morehouse College, defiantly contributed to healing that hole. As I began to read and study more on the history of the Black diaspora especially during the era of the War of the Slaveholders Rebellion I found myself as a man. My historical interpretation as a staff member at the Atlanta History Center also helped form my philosophy on historical interpretation. One day I had enough. I noticed many reenactors who said they were my friends would remain conspicuously silent on the enslaved perspective and knew little to nothing of Black involvement in history outside of there was slavery and the 54th Mass. These were reenactors not living historians. When these same reenactors would say racist or racialized comments I started to speak up, and when they posted similar remarks on social media I began to call them out. I didn’t care about the clothes and the fake friendships. Americans of all colors live with the legacy of the War of the Slaveholders Rebellion and Jim Crow, and Black and Brown people are still suffering from the failed policies to correctly address these issues. It was when I came to this realization that I decided I would no longer be a reenactor and I would dedicate my life to historic education and interpreting the lives of the African diaspora as a living historian. A living historian is a person who dresses in historical attire and engages in the art of understanding the past through participating in period activities while educating the public. Although living historians can also reenact, by definition reenactors do not engage in the business of living history. Living historians are students of history and teachers rather than playing soldier (or civilian) for a weekend.

I was deleted from the friends list of many reenactors and I received fewer invitations to events. I will not say that is was without a doubt because of my views, but it did seem strange that when I began to vocalize how I felt or introduce people to different perspective I was no longer the “cool” Marvin that reenactors wanted to be around. Through it all I met other living historians and even some reenactors that understand historical interpretation, and strive to connect the past to the present so that we can move forward and progress as a society. One of the greatest historical interpreters and living historians of all times George Hardy took me under his wing and helped foster my passion. Together George and I founded two authentic/campaigner living history organizations, the Sons and Daughters of Ham and the Hannibal Guards. The Sons and Daughters of Ham is a living history organization dedicated to telling the story of African-American civilians during the War of the Slaveholders Rebellion. The Hannibal Guards is dedicated to representing the contributions of African-American soldiers fighting to ensure freedom during the rebellion.

Since I discovered who I am and what the roll of a living historian is, I have been invited to lecture at numerous conferences and even received an award from the City of Atlanta for my dedication to preserving Black history and culture.

I write this not for myself but I dedicate this post to my three younger brothers Hugh, Noah, and Jordan, and all of the other Black living historians that come after me. These three amazing young men kept me in the hobby when I wanted to quit, when I thought the pressure from those who didn’t value my work was too much their passion and quest to improve and tell the story as living historians kept and keeps me going. So when people ask am I a reenactor I tell them I am a living historian, I refuse to be a reenactor, and here’s why.

26 thoughts on “I refuse to be a Reenactor, and here’s why

  1. Great article Marvin. Knowing you over the years and watching you grow into your own makes me very proud of you.

    Keep doing the great job you’re doing. The best is yet to come.


    1. Thank you Sir. The men that you speak of I also have the honor to know. As a member of the 54th Mass they were of great help to me as I worked with youth living historians. Your words ring with truth.
      Stephen Belyea
      Capt Company A 54th
      Boston MA


  2. Marvin, I am a great admirer of you and what you do. I saw you with Cheney at Bentonville – was with Starr’s Batteryfor that event – would like to converse with you should we have the chance to be at the same living history event in future. Keep the faith and history alive!


  3. Marvin, it’s been a huge honor to know you and see the work you do. Interpreting with you and the others portraying freedmen at the last Westville was a highlight of my time as a living historian – one of the few times I’ve really felt transported, and really felt I gained a new understanding of life in that place and time. Keep doing what you’re doing!


  4. fantastic article! I think the people who are honoured to be your true friends are also proud of the work you do. We need more living historians like you. Keep up the good work.


  5. In your opinion and experience with reenacting, would you find it suitable for any adult to portray any role. By this I mean, a person of any color and/or any gender can portray any role. A slave is distinguished by an arm band or “scarlet letter” but could be played by a person of any color. A historically “white” role would also be played by a person of any color. Just curious as to your thoughts.


  6. I loved reading your article! It is more work to be a living historian, -and to keep the research going all the while sharing this knowledge in a thoughtful and engaging way with the public. The world needs more living historians like you that can expand people’s common history lessons with more details of every facet of a black soldier’s experience or the life of one particular slave.
    This summer while attending The Mountain Man Rendevous in Wyoming I had the privledge of hearing another living historian named Bad Hand who has spent his life living and researching the Plains Indians. Seeing his collection of Indian artifact replicas that he made after much research and the stories he shared – brought to vivid detail the history of those various tribes, all the while dispelling misconceptions and stereotypes on Indian culture or peoples. He did so in such a compelling and as a matter of fact way- that the listener just wanted to hear more. So- I share this not only as congratulations to you for your efforts to share the true historical stories but also as a tip- to hear Bad Hand speak one day- all best to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is so insightful. There truly is a difference between the reenactor and the living historian. One simply recreates, but the other recreates with grace, passion, and a purpose. I regret I’ve not met you, but I know and admire the hell out of Hugh. I’m glad he’s got a mentor in you – that gives me even more faith that he’s gonna go far in this field.


  8. I enjoyed reading this. How to discuss slaves and slave holding is something I have struggled with for many years. I portray the wife of a politician who owned at least 50 slaves that we know of all. All I have been able to discover is they referred to them as servants or laborers but never slaves.


  9. I was at the museum in St. Louis when they had a civil rights exhibit. There were a couple living historians there that day. I was able to listen to them and learn much more than I would have had they not been there. What a great experience for my granddaughters


  10. I have been involved in the hobby for over 20 years. In just the first few years, I noticed that difference you alluded to. There were those just there to drink around the camp fire and burn black powder, and there were those — like my group — who wanted to strive for authenticity and considered ourselves more as historians. Sadly it is only in recent years that I have noticed the obvious absence of the Black experience at many of the events we do. I think now more than ever, we need more people of color involved in living history. It doesn’t matter that I wear gray, and others may wear blue, we are all teachers with the same mission. Thank you for what you do, and keep up the excellent work…. may it inspire the next generation of Americans.


  11. Dear Marvin,
    Great article. Would it be possible for you to contact me? I am interested in possibly hiring you for a presentation at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA. We have a commemoration of the Battle of Hampton Roads in March every year and in 2018 we are dramatically changing the format. My name is Lauren Furey and I am the Manager of Visitor Engagement and can be reached at lfurey@marinersmuseum.org


  12. I remember through this text of a conversation with Marvin-Alonzo Greer one night at the bottom of a Louisiana forest in 2010 where we debated among other things, the French Revolution, the human race with a great H, homo sapiens sapiens, the only existing race with all its shades of color, and in which I told him all my admiration and my respect for the introspection he had to do to represent there a slave in flight among the confederate soldier. He told me then, that some white people present at this event should not see its presence a good eye, but me, white French, considered it, I was surprised at this, so white European skin did not want to subscribe to the fact that in 2010 on an event gathering people conscious of the History that they reconstituted may think that the presence of a man of color can be a problem. I was then certainly very naive, this thought being unbearable to me the color of the skin not indicating to my eyes the color of the heart or the soul. It’s easy for me, my skin is white and my eyes are blue but my heart and soul are multicolored… And I dance like a Creole or Caribbean 🙂 🙂


  13. Well done, Marvin. Our first-person discourse in the civilian town at 150th Gettysburg was truly unique. I did bite my tongue, though, when I almost said the “N” word – I didn’t know you at the time, and had no idea how you would react (lol). I was the Copperhead selling KGC “passes” for a dollar apiece.


  14. You’re a great teacher, Marvin, and I can see that your young brothers will be as well. And God knows the lessons need to be taught…


  15. Very interesting.
    I have taken part in re-enactments for 30 years in the UK. I’ve noticed that at some larger events ‘the gentry’ sort of stay in role when the public have gone, socialising in the evening with the other gentry and ‘the lower classes’ have their own camp-fire. At other events there is no distinction and everyone mixes together in the evenings.
    I can never decide if this is unthinking immersion in the role or a reflection of British society where those who can afford intricate and expensive upper-class clothing ARE much richer than those portraying the ‘peasants’, who have made their own simple attire. Does simply wearing the clothes, eating the food and sitting in the sumptous chamber all day promote a nineteenth-century ‘them and us’ attitude?
    At one event my family were portraying WW2 working-class evacuees, billetted in a mansion. At the buffet-style evening meal (NO PUBLIC) one of my sons reached out for some cold salmon, which would have been an expensive item in wartime. The ‘butler’ immediately told him sharply it was ‘too good for the likes of you’ and removed the plate !

    Sadly, in my experience, discrimination isn’t only about colour …


  16. Great article. Keeping a true accounting of history is so very important. It is difficult sometimes to view our history through the lens of modern morals and standards. By examining and bringing to light the facts we can gain a better perspective.


  17. Aloha, and thank you for your thoughtful writing. I teach Hawaiian culture and arts in Hawaiʻi. Though I do not often participate in reenactments, I have done a lot of living history work. You have put into words what I have long felt. Mahalo, Leilehua Yuen.


  18. “ I was deleted from the friends list of many reenactors and I received fewer invitations to events. I will not say that is was without a doubt because of my views, but it did seem strange that when I began to vocalize how I felt or introduce people to different perspective I was no longer the “cool” Marvin that reenactors wanted to be around. ”

    Had the same thing happen to me and I’m fairly sure it was the same people.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s