The Roanoke Times today reports on the growing divide in Lexington and Rockbridge County over a petition that offers the Museum of the Confederacy a new home. While Waite Rawls, the museum’s director along with Brian Shaw, chairman of the Rockbridge Area Tourism Board, are convinced that Lexington and the surrounding area would benefit economically there is skepticism just below the surface.
“I’m not sure it’s going to be as income-producing for our citizens as people think it is,” said Lexington City Council member Mimi Elrod, who voted against the city submitting a proposal to attract the museum. “I have real questions about the numbers.” Elrod is among those who view the museum’s focus on the Confederacy, which fought to preserve slavery, to be as divisive now as it was during the Civil War. “My concern with the Museum of the Confederacy is it is celebrating a cause that was established to maintain the enslavement of people,” she said. “I don’t want to celebrate the Confederacy.” Elrod said the museum would be more acceptable if it were a Civil War museum that represented both sides of the war.
There are two issues to consider in Elrod’s comment. First, Elrod expresses concern that the museum will not attract the kinds of numbers that will make the move economically worthwhile for the community. I am not convinced either. I don’t see how anyone can argue that Lexington will attract more visitors compared with Richmond. There are more schools in the Richmond area that could be brought to the museum as well as other organizations. Tourism and population in the Richmond-Petersburg-D.C. corridor reinforce this point. The second problem is much more significant and will stay with the MOC regardless of whether it moves or remains in Richmond. The MOC has an image problem that must be addressed head-on. If a city councilwoman has a distorted view of the mission of the MOC than what can one expect from the average citizen? Rawls seems to think that the MOC does a competent job of outreach and education:
“It’s therefore vital that our educational mission be emphasized,” he said. “I think we do a very good job of making people understand better the causes of the war, the aftermath of the war, how it was conducted, who fought it, what they believed in at the time.”
I simply disagree with Rawls here and it seems clear that the MOC’s predicament is a direct result of that message not getting through to the general public. Rawls and the rest of the staff must make educational outreach their number one concern, and it should do so in the former capital of the Confederacy.
The public misconception surrounding the MOC’s mission along with the very emotional debates surrounding the Confederate flag will surely take place in Lexington and this could lead to problems. Is the city of Lexington prepared for this? Ted DeLaney, a history professor at Washington and Lee University and a Lexington native who is black, said such a prominent display of the Confederacy at the museum would create division in the community.
“Even during the days when Lexington was a segregated community … Lexington was a civil place,” he said. “I don’t see anything that is positive in the museum relocating to a community like this. The tenor of the debate so far indicates to me that there is great potential for a lack of civility.”
I recently talked to a restaurant owner here in Charlottesville who is moving operations to Lexington. She hinted that there are more people who have expressed concern than what is making it into the newspapers. The Roanoke Times includes a statistic showing 80% of respondents to a local poll supported the relocation of the MOC to Lexington. I am not surprised by this poll given that most of the museum’s supporters would be more likely to declare their approval compared with those who have doubts.
I continually come back to two essential points when thinking about this complicated issue. First, it is not clear to me at all that the Museum would enjoy a noticeable increase in visitors if it moved to Lexington. Second, but more importantly, its mission is best understood in Richmond where it can address the tough questions that continue to divide us surrounding issues that stem from our Civil War.