Local students received a detailed United States history lesson last week from an unlikely source - one of the nation's Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson.
Local students received a detailed United States history lesson last week from an unlikely source -- one of the nation's Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson.
William Barker, who impersonates the third president of the United States at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, visited the district campus and spoke to students in character while he was in New Albany as part of an adult lecture series at the Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts.
Barker and Ed Chappell, director of architectural and archaeological research with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, kicked off the series with a program that documented similarities between one of the earliest examples of a planned community -- Williamsburg, Va. -- and the modern principles of planning at work in New Albany. The New Albany Community Foundation organized the McCoy Lecture Series, which will feature more guest speakers each of the next three months.
Chappell and Barker's program included the impersonator's visits to local schools. Taking Jefferson's persona, Barker taught everything from how the United States established individual rights and freedoms and established its independence to different aspects of colonial culture.
During a visit to New Albany Middle School Jan. 13, he began his presentation by explaining how people dressed and behaved during the late 18th century and early 19th century.
He then described the Native Americans of that time and how they prompted early leaders to recognize people with different beliefs and customs.
"They (the Native Americans) would walk up with their hands up and would take your hand like that, shaking hands," Barker said.
He asked the students why the Native Americans would have held their hands up and a student correctly answered: "To show they are not carrying a weapon."
Barker said the greeting was as good as any proper greeting from an English gentleman.
The United States was formed by people seeking many different types of freedom, Barker said.
He explained that in England, the eldest son inherited the father's property and wealth, which meant if there was a second son or a daughter, those siblings would not receive part of the estate. The second son could hope his brother would hire him to manage the estate, he could marry a wealthy woman who had no brothers and therefore could inherit his wife's fortune or he could become an apprentice and learn a trade to earn a living.
Barker said because of that situation, many of the "second sons" and daughters who couldn't inherit property or wealth came to the new country to make a new life for themselves.
The same went for education. The eldest son was sent to school and other siblings, if the family was wealthy enough, could be tutored at home. Poor people could not afford an education. Barker said the United States was founded with a principle that education should be for all and he pointed around the room at the students, saying that principle is being fulfilled.
Barker also spoke about the incorporation of immigrants into the new nation.
"We determined that people's rights cannot belong to one nation or one particular people," he said. "Rights are within you. They are created by nature and nature's God. They are in you from birth and can't be sold and can't be bought."
On the topic of slavery, Barker said Jefferson kept slaves himself and that their existence contributed to the discussion of freedom, rights and a free nation.
As part of the program, Barker took questions from several students and responded in character.
Barker was asked about Jefferson's siblings and he told the students he was one of 10 children. He lost two of his six sisters and two of his three brothers during his lifetime.
He also was asked if Jefferson was ever put on trial. Barker said he was not, but, he said, the British put a price on his head and that of Patrick Henry. He narrowly escaped capture after being warned by a neighbor and evacuating his family from his home, Monticello.
Barker answered another question by saying it took Jefferson three days and four sheets of paper to complete the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, which went through three more drafts and review by the Continental Congress and its committee before being sent to a printer.
He said, oddly enough, the King George III read the Declaration of Independence in a newspaper. An American newspaper taken to Ireland printed the document, which was reprinted in an Irish newspaper that ended up at the king's court.
Another question involved his Southern accent. A teacher asked how quickly the British accents faded from the new Americans' speech. Barker said as generations were born in America, they picked up variations of English as spoken around them and the British accent slowly faded away.
Several New Albany Middle School students and teachers said they learned much from the presentation.
Eighth-grader Anna Wolfe said she was surprised by some of the stories Jefferson told.
"He gave us a lot of background that we never would have known," she said. "He told us a lot of little details, things that you would never expect to be in a history class."
Gabe Heselton, an eighth-grade American history teacher, said Barker's appearance was a special opportunity.
"It makes it really an active learning experience for the students, more authentic," he said.
Barker said he was pleased with the student's interaction throughout his visit and was impressed many could answer his questions about history.
He visited several other area schools and organizations, including New Albany High School, the Wellington School in Columbus, Greensview Elementary School in Upper Arlington, the Ohio Historical Society, the New Albany Country Club and St. Paul Parish School in Westerville. He also made a brief appearance at Starbucks in New Albany.