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In Richmond, Christy Coleman helped reframe the narrative of the Civil War; Now, as she heads to Williamsburg, she looks back at her career in history

In Richmond, Christy Coleman helped reframe the narrative of the Civil War; Now, as she heads to Williamsburg, she looks back at her career in history

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In 2018, for Coleman’s efforts, Time magazine listed her among 31 people “who are changing the South.”

A defining moment of ringing clarity, as Christy S. Coleman recalls it, arrived more than 30 years ago when she was working as an educator at a museum in Baltimore.

She was in her early 20s, enthusiastic (“brash” by her own description) and determined to have, as she put it, “a social justice impact.”

The City Life Museum was across the street from a public housing community, and Coleman noticed there seemed to be no intersection between the two. In fact, the relationship was antagonistic: The museum seemed to make little effort to welcome its neighbors, and the kids threw rocks at the building.

“There were these children I would see every day, really great kids, who never really felt they could cross the street and come to the museum,” she said.

As a junior member of the educator staff, Coleman found herself working every weekend, so she developed a connection with these kids, who had no idea what the museum was about. She invited them in to introduce them to the history of the city that was theirs, too.

“And that started a relationship with the community that was really quite extraordinary,” Coleman said.

The rock-throwing stopped, and the kids developed a kinship with the museum, she said. Coleman got to know the parents and started doing programs in the local school, even launched a junior volunteer program that had these kids giving tours, assisting in the office and putting on costumes. In another museum program, she worked with a young Tupac Shakur, who spent part of his high school years attending Baltimore School for the Arts, and Josh Charles, later an actor on “The Good Wife.”

“It was just really terrific to get them engaged with an organization that they never thought they could have an experience with,” she said. “It was this really crazy, wonderful thing.”

But there were conflicts with museum management who did not always share her enthusiasm for her initiatives, and Coleman quit the now-closed museum in frustration.

“And then it was like ‘Ding, ding, ding!’ in my head,” she recalled in an interview in her office at the American Civil War Museum in downtown Richmond in her next-to-last week on the job. “The brash, younger me — which is still around sometime” — vowed never again to find herself under the control of such powers-that-be.

Put another way: Why couldn’t she become the powers-that-be?

The episode helped inspire her eventual return to school — she had dropped out of the College of William and Mary to pursue a career in acting, where she found work but was unable to, as she put it, “sustain myself.” She worked several part-time jobs (including coaching a high school gymnastics team), scraped together savings and moved back to her parents’ home in Williamsburg, where she spent most of her growing-up years, and ultimately launched herself down a path of history education and museum management.

And here we are.

Thursday, Jan. 16 was Coleman’s last day as chief executive officer of the American Civil War Museum before moving a couple of centuries back in time for her new job, which begins Tuesday, Jan. 21, as executive director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, but she’s taking her approach of sharing history in a more complete, inclusive manner with her. She already has said she intends “to continue to tell powerfully relevant history that is inclusive and compelling” at JYF’s museums: Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. She also has tweeted she wants to add “paid internships and a special program for Virginia’s Native American youth to be among the next generation of museum leaders.”

In a lot of ways — geographically and academically — the move is about going home. There also is this: Though she has no direct connection to the museums at Jamestown or Yorktown, her mother, Liz Montgomery, does, and she’s a favorite at the foundation. Montgomery, who in earlier years worked in banking, enjoyed a second career as manager of visitor services at the Jamestown and Yorktown museums, retiring two years ago. In her 70s, she also is an accomplished jazz singer and still performs with a trio. “A force of nature” is how Coleman describes her mother, which might help explain why Coleman is the way she is.

Coleman has spent the past dozen years immersed in the Civil War, so she’s beginning to focus on reacquainting herself with colonial history, particularly recent scholarship in the field. She sent out a request to historians on Twitter, asking for guidance as she refreshes “my understanding of early colonial history in North America” and all of the players involved: “What books and [whose] work should I get/follow?”

She’s ordering those books now, downloading them, which will make for enlightening listening on the commute from Chesterfield to the Historic Triangle, as she and her family — for now — plan to continue living in the Richmond area.

Her departure from Richmond will be keenly felt in a place where she — as an African American woman — waded intrepidly into the middle of the larger community’s reckoning with the story of the Civil War and all that goes with it. She arrived in 2008 as president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, just in time for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, oversaw the merger of the center with the Museum of the Confederacy and co-chaired the Monument Avenue Commission that studied what to do with the street’s Confederates statues — while conveying the story of the Civil War in a way that includes the perspectives of all whose lives were intertwined with the war. The narrative is not being “changed,” she says. “Instead,” she tweeted recently, “I offer what we’re doing is actually correcting it.”

Time magazine included her among 31 people “who are changing the South” in a 2018 article. NBC News described her as “the black woman reclaiming the narrative of the Civil War.” She has been praised for promoting courageous conversations about difficult subjects. Kevin M. Levin, an educator and historian based in Boston, and author most recently of “Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth,” calls her “one of the most important voices in the field of public history.”

Bill Martin, her counterpart at the Valentine, calls her “a great friend and advisor.”

“Christy Coleman sparked an important and long-needed conversation about history and legacy of the Civil War,” Martin, director of the Valentine, wrote in an email. “From leading the merger of the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center to creation of a new and more inclusive interpretation of this period at Tredegar, Christy reset the way we approach and understand the Civil War.

“She was a constant reminder of the essential and difficult work of history museums. Our institutions must encourage complicated and nuanced conversations about meaning of our past with our eyes clearly focused on the future. History is hard work. Christy did this work and inspired and challenged me in my role at the Valentine.”

Coleman got her start in the museum business at Colonial Williamsburg, where as a high school student in 1982 she was hired as a living history character, portraying a young slave named Rebecca. A little more than a decade later, after completing her undergraduate and graduate work in museum studies at Hampton University, she returned to Colonial Williamsburg as director of its African American program in August 1994, a role that seemed a perfect assignment for someone who recalled growing up disillusioned because of the lack of African American history offered at Colonial Williamsburg.

Two months later, she staged a re-enactment of a slave auction on Duke of Gloucester Street in which she movingly portrayed a pregnant woman separated from her husband. The event attracted considerable attention and a crowd, including protests but much praise for the attempt to offer a realistic interpretation of the repugnant routine of 18th-century life.

For Coleman, who was 30 years old at the time, it was a remarkable moment; she was making the sort of impact on the museum world she had aspired to make.

But it came with an unexpected price.

The unsettling episode, which had been stressful with late-night phone calls from news media and others and a concern people would show up at her home, led to agoraphobia: a type of anxiety disorder in which those affected fear and avoid places or situations that might cause panic and a helpless, trapped feeling — especially where crowds gather.

“I was a fairly fearless person,” she said, but she could not stave off panic attacks that developed. She eventually sought help through therapy, and it stopped being an issue, though she still employs some of the coping mechanisms that helped her through that period.

She’s become candid about that part of her life in recent years, finally determining it “doesn’t make me any lesser because I had to deal with this thing.”

As she looks toward Jamestown and Yorktown, Coleman, 55, said her decades in the field have allowed her to “better appreciate … how passionate people are about their history and culture as they perceive it.”

“I am far more conscious about the sort of confluence between history, heritage and memory and what that means and how to navigate those spaces to help people come to deeper understanding of the forensic, the documentable history, but not being dismissive of why people frame narratives the way that they do,” said Coleman, who was president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, between Colonial Williamsburg and coming to Richmond.

“Coming into this job, I don’t think I fully appreciated just how much heritage memory had usurped forensic history. I mean the records are right there!”

There have been times, Coleman said, when she did indeed feel like “banging my head against the wall” as a result of people not acknowledging the history before them. Now she makes herself stop and take a less exasperated approach and try to “help people where they are.”

“I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve experienced the successes that we’ve had. Certainly has not been perfect,” she said. “But more important, I think what this small team of museum professionals has managed to accomplish … is to help visitors fully understand and appreciate just how expansive the Civil War narrative is and that it included all of us.”

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