Colonial Williamsburg interpreter brings 18th cent. Black businesswoman to life

NADINE MATTHEWS | 2/13/2020, 4:09 p.m.
Emily James’ career as an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia began over 30 years ago.
Actor/interpreter Emily James in character as 18th-century small business owner Edith Cumbo (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation photo)

The Cumbo family, in today’s terms, suggests James would have been considered a “gold star” military family. Edith’s father, James states, “Served alongside George Washington in the French and Indian War. It’s documented that her father and all five of Edith’s brothers served in the military. All the males in the family served with Commander in Chief George Washington and the Allied Forces.”

Not far from Williamsburg, near Jamestown Settlement, another Virginia interpretive museum site, can be found a commemorative plaque with the names of some of the men in Edith’s family. It describes them as “...Patriots who served in support of our nation’s war for independence.”

James explains what keeps her excited doing this after so many years. “I tried to use the character to show it’s not the condition you lived and worked under that made you a slave, it’s the law. I also want to show human relationships, and use the character to reconnect with what’s going on in people’s lives today.”

Some of the highlights of James’ career at Williamsburg was getting kudos from “Roots” author Alex Haley and finding friendship with those who visit. “I still enjoy what I do and the friendships I’ve forged from doing this. It fills me with such satisfaction. I’ve been doing this for so long and I can infuse the love I have for my brothers and sisters in what I do. We need to listen to each other and work together to make a better nation.”

Fulfilling a personal mission of being a voice for the voiceless is also gratifying for her. “I’m telling a story that these people weren’t in a position to tell and if I don’t who will?”

For more info on seeing James and other interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg, please visit