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Progress in the Capital of the Confederacy

One year ago, Erin and I were in Farmville, Virginia, focusing our day on Moten High School and the work of the young Barbara Johns. She of the school walkout that grew larger than life and into the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that changed American education for the better. This King Holiday we took the train to Richmond to explore the American Civil War Museum, housed in the former Tredegar Works - the factory that armed the Confederacy, nestled still at the foot of Capitol Hill on the James River. These journeys allow us to dig deeper into the vast, convoluted, and often-contrived story of American history - particularly its halting efforts towards recognizing the civil rights of all of us.

I admit to some awkwardness at entering the museum; I have studiously avoided what have heretofore seemed shrines to the Lost Cause - that reification of Southern "heritage" and monstrousness in the name of tradition. Farmville was a more understandable visit - I needed to know more about Ms. Johns and the movement that grew from her work, the movement that deeply shaped my work as an educator. But a civil war museum in Richmond? How did this come about. and why did I go along with it?

Turns out that in this, as in so many other adventures conceived by my wife, there was a good reason for the visit. As longtime Albright trip-watchers know, our dyad often shapes our visits around themes to explore. One year we tackled Jamestown, Quebec, and Seville in an effort to better understand the triangle human/sugar/rum trade. Other times we have explored certain regions of our country, looking at a particular industry or economy that shaped that area.

This year, I have discovered, we are examining why things happen the way they do - specifically whence spring rebellions? Partly this has to do with our continuing distress over the way our political culture has decayed so vividly over the last decade. Why are these people so willing to give up on the democratic experiment? From here we look at other times peoples moved en masse to change their governments. We have been to Philadelphia to look at the American Revolution museum, but that trip was cut short and we need to go back. That museum has done some excellent work around describing how the colonies moved from complacency in the 1760s to uniform rebellion in the 1770s. We recently traveled down to Yorktown to another, different American Revolution museum to see how the topic was addressed there, at the site of the last major battle of that war. To complete the trifecta, we sought to see how the origins of the American Civil War are discussed in 2023. So to Richmond we traveled.

Richmond still feels like it only begrudgingly gave up being the Capitol of the rebellious South. When I visited Monument Avenue last year it was to see the aftermath of the removal of the statues to the Confederate heroes, to walk past the old Museum of the Confederacy, to see this southern capital for the past it has yet to leave behind. What inspired us this trip was a story about the previous director of the American Civil War Museum, a Black American historian who oversaw the merger of the Museum of the Confederacy and the Tredegar Iron Works into a modern, 21st century telling of that horrific war. The article shared that the museum, in new, modern digs, has a more rounded presentation, one that truly focuses on the narrative of the War, rather than a description of lost glory. Maybe here, we reasoned, we could see how an even-handed retelling handles the source story of the war.

After taking the train to Main Street Station and walking along the old Kanawha canal, we entered the beautiful facility with some trepidation. The truth is that it IS a more accurate telling, more than I expected. Where once I would have expected to hear about 5-10 reasons why Civil War was not just about slavery and its perpetuation, here it was front and center in the story. Keeping slavery going and healthy was laid out as the reason for the war. The well-designed exhibits were full of a semblance of balance - not just the story of Black Americans juxtaposed against those of White Americans through all stages of the conflict. Women and men. North and South. Soldiers and non-combatants. This was refreshing. After the mostly chronological presentation of the war was over (the main exhibit here at the museum) I can say that I wasn't embarrassed to find myself in that building. I learned stuff and wasn't ashamed.

There were still a few odd touches. The thousands of small historical artifacts came from the former Museum of the Confederacy and so over-represented the material possessions of Confederate soldiers. This could be expected. In addition, while the museum did a good job of avoiding placing too much attention on any individual men who led the war, two exceptions stood out. One was a display about JEB Stuart, a middling general who died early on but is a favorite of southern sympathizers. The other was a series of panels detailing the march of General Sherman through Georgia and the Carolinas, the longest series of panels dealing with one topic. Sherman is still despised in the south for his seemingly terroristic burning of homes and towns, and the display really wanted him to be seen as a villain. Of course, others don't hold to the belief that Sherman was that unique in the circumstances of war, and in the broader sense of ending the war, his approach was pretty effective. These oddities were remarkable but did not remove the sense that the museum was much closer to balance than I anticipated.

The story of public monuments, in this case in Richmond, is much richer than I think we typically hold. My last impression of the walk back to the train station was of the many works that pepper the city that reflect a more complete telling of the story of Virginia. From the "Freedom" statue on the river front, to the striking image of the oarsman in his skiff, to the newish collection of four sculptures about the Farmville movement, to the delightful collection of life-size portrayals of important Virginian women. These feel more important, more contemporary in their understanding of who we are and how we arrived at this point. The museum was the main draw for us this time, of course, but wandering through a city replete with sculptures that reflected a newer understanding gave the trip its extra flavor.

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