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.