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The Search for Sy Gilliat

Updated: Feb 4, 2022

What we know about Gilliat, does not include a portrait or a soundbite. We don’t know what he looked like, or what he sounded like inside the Governor’s house in Williamsburg. However, we do have enough information to contextualize his place in a world fascinated with the exotic elements provided by European expansionism. As a star of singular proportions in the vice-royal court in Virginia, Gilliat was not alone.

Sy Gilliat was the property of the British governor, an African prodigy, a fiddler, a living legend. The exotic and fashionable trend of promoting Black musicians was in vogue for decades in Europe. George Bridgetower, Beethoven’s beloved friend and music genius, Joseph Boulogne, also known as the Black Mozart, Ignatius Sancho and Joseph Emidy are just a handful of examples. Western monarchies were falling head over hills with African men fiddling, playing the piano, singing opera, and entertaining perplexed audiences. The colony of Virginia was not going to settle for anything less. Perhaps Sy Gilliat was not as good as any of the European counterparts, but he was “our fiddler”.

Portrait of Ignatius Sancho
Ignatius Sancho 1729 – 1780

Gilliat was elegant, owned an extraordinary wardrobe and conducted himself in the flamboyant grace of Versailles, a style associated with the Francophile ruling class about to be defeated during the revolutionary war.

The leadership of the young republic had no regard for the decadent symbols of the ancient regime. In the newly created United States, where all men were created equal, Blacks had a major role to play as enslaved field hands, not on stage.

The residence of Thomas Jefferson overlooking the town of Charlottesville in Virginia, soon became a beacon of the of the American Enlightenment. In Monticello, Jefferson resided with the enslaved woman Sally Hemings and six children that came from that relationship, two of which, Eston and Madison, became accomplished violinists.

However, neither Eston nor Madison, would ever enjoy the admiration once professed for Sy Gilliat or other Afro-descendant musicians in Europe. Freed after the death of Thomas Jefferson, Easton and Madison Hemings moved to the village of Charlottesville where they were occasionally able to join the local music scene under the constant scrutiny and the growing anti-Black sentiment.

Ten years after the death of Thomas Jefferson, the now free children of the third president of the United States, will join an exodus of free black families seeking new opportunities in the Northwest Territory.

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