Jennifer Gray '10: Stepping Into America's History
I’m not a teacher in a traditional classroom. I’m teaching children, their parents, and their grandparents at a historic landmark.
Jennifer Gray ’10 knows what it’s like to be an American icon. As a storyteller for Historic Philadelphia, Inc. (HPI), Gray portrays Betsy Ross, America’s famous first flagmaker, at the Betsy Ross House on Arch Street. She conveys the complexity of Ross’ life as an entrepreneur, revolutionary, mother, and wife using interactive learning and creative interpretation. Every day, Gray embodies Ross for curious visitors, while answering questions and sparking interest in America’s beginnings.
Q: What is the most challenging part your work as a storyteller? What is the most rewarding?
A: They are closely related. I love what I do because I get to educate people of all ages. I’m not a teacher in a traditional classroom. I’m teaching children, their parents, and their grandparents at a historic landmark. It’s very rewarding to show everyone that history is interesting and fun. Hopefully, I have opened their eyes to this realization. But it’s also the most challenging part of my job, too. Keeping everyone’s attention can be difficult. It was especially challenging for me in the beginning. I’ve gotten better at it with more experience.
Q: Have you ever discovered a little-known fact about Betsy Ross that surprised you?
A: I took a self-made crash course by learning everything I could about Betsy in a one-month timeframe in order to portray her. What I found most fascinating is something that the Betsy Ross House has only recently discovered several years ago. There isn’t any official documentation that proves unequivocally that [she] actually made the first American flag. Betsy had always maintained that General George Washington came directly to see her in 1776 to commission the first American flag. That’s a really big deal, considering General Washington’s celebrity in the 18th century.
Taking circumstances into account, it’s possible to put the pieces together without written records. In September 1774, Betsy first met Washington when he paid her a visit and commissioned her to make bed curtains and furnishings for Mount Vernon. Since business was conducted by word of mouth, it’s reasonable that she would have received repeat business. Mount Vernon historians recently discovered documentation of this particular visit and General Washington’s initial request. That’s a huge discovery for the Betsy Ross House because it connects important events.
Q: Is there more than one Betsy at the Betsy Ross House?
A: The Betsy Ross House is open year-round, seven days per week. There are actually three of us portraying Betsy so that someone can be there every day. [She] was married three times — that’s how we differentiate from each other. We portray [her] during her different marriages. Portraying Betsy at different phase in her life helps keep us organized. It allows us to have our own interpretations and lets us tell unique stories. I portray Betsy during her second marriage.
Q: What is your favorite aspect of living and working in Philadelphia, a city known as the “Cradle of Liberty?”
A: What I love most about Philadelphia, as opposed to other cities, is that history is very much a part of this city. People visit Philadelphia because this is where America was born. They come to see Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, and now the new Museum of the American Revolution. History comes alive here – it’s a well-preserved, integral part of living and working here.
Q: Have you visited the new Museum of the American Revolution?
A: Yes, I have! It’s a big, beautiful building with an extraordinary collection. It’s needed because most people I meet believe that the Declaration of Independence signaled the end of the American Revolution, but it was actually the beginning. The Museum helps explains these facts and expands on important themes. It prompts visitors’ interest so that they want to explore and learn more about this critical time in American history.
Q: Are you Team Burr or Team Hamilton?
A: Absolutely, Team Hamilton! If I lived during the 18th century and had to choose a side, I would side with the Federalists. I’m currently reading a book that examines the Federalist and Anti-Federalist conflict called The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis. It examines the creation of the American nation from fighting a war to constructing a constitution and, most importantly, chronicles the compromise needed to form a united, centralized government.
Q: Do you have some additional book recommendations for history buffs?
A: Some of my favorites include: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey, and Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Q: If you could host a dinner party with five guests from any time period, who would they be?
A: Betsy Ross, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, and any one of the Founding Fathers such as Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison.
Q: If you could travel back in time and visit another place, where and when would that be?
A: I’d love to visit 18th century Philadelphia to experience firsthand the birth of our nation and hear the debates between the Founding Fathers. I’d also like to experience daily life — ordinary things like going shopping, writing letters to family and friends, and meeting new people. There are many things I would like to experience and learn. That’s what I strive to inspire in others. Hopefully, they will want to experience more about history and immerse themselves in everything that museums have to offer.
Q: You have described your career path as unconventional. What advice would you give recent graduates who may be considering a similar path?
A: Having an unconventional path has its benefits – I look forward to going to work because its different each day. I’m doing something that I love. Don’t be afraid to start small and work towards something great, something that you truly love.
Take Your Own Step Into History
To experience a more up-close-and-personal look at the time of the Betsy Ross and the Founding Fathers, register for An Arcadia Evening at the Museum of the American Revolution, which will be held on Monday, Oct. 2, 2017 and will include after-hours access to Philadelphia’s newest museum and a talk by Dr. Peter Siskind, assistant professor and chair of Historical and Political Studies at Arcadia on “Meaning and Memories of the American Revolution."