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In Richmond, black history looks forward

In Richmond, black history looks forward


In 2019, Virginia will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of its first Africans. This past November, a Richmond roundtable convened with an eye toward highlighting the region's rich African-American heritage.

The meeting included representatives of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, the American Civil War Museum, the Valentine, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Elegba Folklore Society, the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, Untold RVA and about a dozen more cultural organizations, jurisdictions and religious institutions. 

The participants focused on "talking about how we can collaborate to elevate the awareness of our African-American history product," said Katherine O'Donnell, vice president of community relations for Richmond Region Tourism. Her organization hosted and facilitated the session at the suggestion of Ken Johnson of the Johnson Inc. marketing firm, with more meetings planned in February and March of this year.

There was a time when local black history offerings were so scant that such a gathering would have been implausible. But Richmond appears intent on more fully tapping a historical legacy that the region has been loath to acknowledge and share. 

In May, the Black History Museum reopened in the renovated Leigh Street Armory, a treasure completed in 1895 to house an African-American military battalion. Meanwhile, in Shockoe Bottom, with millions of local and state dollars in hand, the only question remaining about the commemoration of the domestic slave trade is what form it will take — a memorial park or a museum? — and whether it will extend beyond the archaeological footprint of the former Lumpkin's Jail.

The jail — the notorious "Devil's Half Acre" — is where the black widow of the white jail operator leased land to a school that later became Virginia Union University. When developed, this historic site will expand the Richmond Slave Trail and be the latest step in acknowledging a domestic slave market that was a driver of Richmond's economy and second only to New Orleans in scope.

Even Richmond's public statuary, long dominated by Confederate icons, has gradually assumed more balance as the region plays catch-up in adding color and context to its monuments.

A memorial plaza for Walker, the pioneering banker, businesswoman, women's rights activist and civic leader, is under construction at the corner of Broad and Adams streets. In the works is the placement of a 12-foot-tall emancipation statue on Brown's Island, home to many free blacks after the fall of the Confederacy.

Those statues would join such monuments as the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Capitol Square, the Richmond Slavery Reconciliation Statue at the entrance of Shockoe Bottom and the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue.

Johnson, the marketing executive, said the Richmond region has an opportunity to be more intentional in its packaging of African-American history — he cited Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., as examples to emulate. 

The raw material is here. In addition to museums and historic sites, Richmond is home to a variety of history makers, from the nation's first elected black governor (L. Douglas Wilder) to a trailblazing tennis champion and humanitarian (Ashe). And it's the capital of a state that even Hollywood has highlighted recently, with compelling stories of black women in the space race ("Hidden Figures"), a landmark interracial marriage case ("Loving") and Nat Turner's slave rebellion ("The Birth of a Nation").

"You know what? We’re interested in hearing the whole story, finally," said Del. Delores L. McQuinn, D-Richmond, chairwoman of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission. "And that’s what’s been the big problem here in Richmond and the commonwealth for that matter, and America.

“I don’t think America, or Virginia or Richmond will ever be what they have potential to be until the full story is told," she said.

The forward movement in this local storytelling, however belated, is palpable.

"We think it’s a really exciting time for black history in the Richmond region, particularly with the new developments that have come online," tourism official O'Donnell said, making particular note of Shockoe Bottom's potential.

She added that proximity to Washington, home of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, could be another lure for Richmond.

In a tourism market dominated by Civil War and Revolutionary War history, "it's pretty safe to say (black history is) one of our lesser-known assets at this point," O'Donnell said. 


But the times are changing.

One turning point occurred in 1998 with the establishment, at the behest of then-City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin, of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission "to help promote awareness of the history and legacy of slavery in Richmond." 

Another pivotal moment was the 2009 launch of "The Future of Richmond's Past," a community conversation that coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the end of slavery. The emancipation focus represented a stark departure from Virginia's centennial commemorative, which embraced the Lost Cause narrative and ignored slavery.

“We have come a long way from the early 2000s," said Lauranett Lee, a public history consultant and former Virginia Historical Society curator who, as a participant in a 2017 Community Trustbuilding Fellowship sponsored by Initiatives of Change, will facilitate the often-difficult dialogue around race and public history.

"There’s progress. In many ways, that progress is quiet. There are a lot of stops and starts," Lee said. "But when we think about how history is interpreted and displayed and disseminated, particularly public history, it’s important that different perspectives are considered."

She noted Richmond's potential to tell a more comprehensive and scholarly story.

“I can see the potential for synergy. I would hope that those who are sitting at the table when decisions are made are looking at the ways they can work together, the ways that their stories complement each other."

Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum, said that in terms of African-American history, “the beautiful thing in my view is some of the more traditional institutions in town are addressing it."  

That includes the Valentine, whose 1902 board established a policy in which every Richmond public school student — black and white — would be admitted for free, said the museum's director, William "Bill" Martin.

Today, the institution is reaffirming its longtime commitment to tell the broader story of Richmond's history, he said.

“It’s part of this bigger arc that we’re all on. Every institution in the city has made remarkable progress and has a remarkable commitment to tell every story in the city," Martin said. At the Valentine, "we want everyone who walks in this door to see themselves somewhere in this building.”

But he acknowledges that the city's museums and institutions have not done justice to certain periods of Richmond history, including the 1890s era that gave rise to the Lost Cause narrative and Confederate monuments.

"It becomes this rationale for Jim Crow and attitudes around race," Martin said of that era.

The Civil War museum, with Coleman as its African-American leader, embodies the broader view with its stated mission to depict the war from multiple perspectives — including those of free and enslaved African-Americans, not only those of the Union and Confederacy.

Though its focus is clearly on African-Americans before emancipation and during Reconstruction, "we are also committed to looking at aftermaths" because of the way they have defined the modern American narrative, Coleman said.

"There is more than enough room ... for us to explore the dynamic of African-Americans in Richmond and Virginia in a way that helps us dig deeper into aspects of the national narrative," she said.

Coleman is hopeful about expanding presentations and programs from the African-American perspective.

"It is simply a matter of how it happens," she said. "And I think the opportunity is there. I think generally speaking the political will is there. The question is, is there the donor will?”


The current energy represents a promising but belated start, said Ed Ayers, a historian and president emeritus of the University of Richmond.

“We’re closer to the beginning than we are to the culmination of it," he said of the ongoing projects, adding: "The beauty of this is we'll never be done."

The culmination "will look more like a recognition of how much more there is to learn than that we’re ready to close to book on it.”

He noted that “it’s a healthy competition — the Southern cities are finally competing to see who can do the best job." Charleston, S.C., is known for the slave trade from Africa, and Birmingham, Ala., for its civil rights history. Plans are underway to build a national memorial to lynching victims in Montgomery, Ala. 

In Richmond, "we really could not have scripted a better time to be a black history museum," said Tasha Chambers, director of the museum in Jackson Ward, a neighborhood so prominent that it was known as the "Black Wall Street" and "Harlem of the South" in the early 20th century.

Chambers also would like to see the museum display exhibits on contemporary issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement or gentrification in Jackson Ward. At the moment, "I really see us dabbling in the fine arts space," she said, noting its exhibit of works by Romare Bearden and former Virginia Commonwealth University School of Arts leader Murry DePillars.

In October, the museum will feature the Kinsey Collection, a national touring exhibit of art, artifacts, books and documents "that tell the often untold story of African-American achievement and contribution," according to the collection's website. But Chambers noted that "I would like to see us curate those Virginia stories that are under-told" involving black physicians, movements and music.

To Lee, the public history consultant, a visit to Charleston only reinforced that the discussions around black history are often painful and occasionally telling. Locally, she cited the protracted and occasionally contentious debate surrounding the placement of the Walker monument at a site once occupied by a Southern live oak tree.

“We need to start with honest conversations about, first, why history matters and how we can bring everybody’s history to the table. And I think Richmond is in many ways like Virginia and America, schizophrenic in dealing with its history," Lee said. "There are ugly parts to it, but that’s part of our history as well, and that needs to be discussed. I think given the political climate that we’re in, it’s going to be necessary to really make sure that people are heard, and as many people and a cross-section as possible.”

The stakes are higher for Richmond than simply adding another hue to the region's historical palette. The key to tackling the issues of contemporary Richmond lies in cracking the code of its complicated past, historians say.

“There are a lot of people of different ethnicities who recognize that the DNA of our city can be understood only if you understand African-American history,” UR's Ayers said. “People also understand that our possibility and our challenges all lie in the African-American past in Richmond.

"I think people realize there’s no way forward except through our past.”

Or as the Valentine's Martin said: “For each generation, we need to figure out: Where do we push the narrative even further?"

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