The Politics of Local History

The Martin Luther King Bridge links the home/museum of Richard Stewart with the downtown Petersburg office of Virginia Delegate Rosalyn Dance.  That bridge can be seen as a metaphor for the relationship between the advocacy for black history by private residents such as Stewart and a local government whose racial profile now makes it possible to address the kinds of public history concerns that was impossible just a few decades ago.

Delegate Dance’s office is on Old Street, which is situated in the center of an ongoing revitalization project in Petersburg.  She is a life-long resident of Petersburg who served as mayor from 1992-2004.  We discussed her personal background and her role and responsibility in the area of public history.  Like Richard Stewart, Dance’s memories of learning about black history was limited.  She recalls hearing about major black historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, but no attention was given to local history or the Civil War more specifically.  In her case the history textbooks used were sent from local white high schools, which downplayed any significant or meaningful discussion of black contributions to American history. 

It was not until her election as mayor that Dance took a serious interest in Petersburg’s rich history.  The most pressing concern when she started her first term was the push to protect and preserve the city’s historic homes – an important concern indeed, but one that satisfied the needs of one segment of the population.  Dance reminded me of the changes in local government stemming from white flight, or as she describes it middle-class flight, in the early 1970s.  What remained was a black population that although was not wealthy was able to begin to take advantage of the political gains stemming from the Civil Rights Movement and accompanying legislation.  By the time Dance became mayor in 1992 the city had a tradition of black political action, but it still needed the tax base and economic incentive to bring about more substantial change in different areas. 

One of the things Dance stressed was the importance of city council’s receptiveness to private concerns.  She fondly remembered Lt. Col. William Powell who was a regular speaker at city council meetings.  Powell reminded the council of its responsibility to promote the city’s rich black history, especially during Black History Month.  Richard Stewart continues this tradition.  This serves as an important reminder that the shape of local government can and has had a profound impact on the way history is remembered and shaped in public spaces.  How often do we hear that recent changes along racial lines to a locale’s historical facade reflects the politicization of history, as if the dominant interpretation that held sway for so long was entirely unconnected to politics?  That dominant white-only emphasis was only possible, and lasted as long as it did, because an entire segment of the population was disfranchised and cut off from the shaping of its public spaces.  Dance remembered Powell as a "voice of reason" who forced her to think seriously about the "contributions that blacks have made to America."  Dance went on to note that when she looked around in her community there was no indication that blacks had contributed anything to the nation’s history or the city of Petersburg; from this perspective Dance sees no problem changing the name of a school after Robert E. Lee to reflect the contributions of Vernon Johns.  While the main attraction at Blandford Cemetery are the gorgeous Tiffany Windows which commemorate the sacrifice and service of white Southerners, Dance and others learned that local black residents had been buried in the cemetery.  Literature at Blandford now includes information about these people and why they were buried in such a location.  Finally, the Siege Museum which is funded by the city, includes a substantial amount of information concerning the areas black history.  The most significant change has been the focus on "Regional Tourism" as opposed to a more narrow focus on Petersburg.  Up until recently the surrounding counties did not include the city of Petersburg in its brochures and other publications, which meant that the historical "hub" of the entire region was left out.  Most importantly, the racial differences in the make-up of county governments led to a skewed historical narrative that did little justice to the region’s black history.  A more regional focus will not only bring about a more inclusive historical focus, but will hopefully be rewarded by the influx of additional tourists.  Dance is quick to point out that as mayor and now a Virginia delegate that she is responsible for all citizens.  She prefers to see such changes as a reflection of Petersburg’s history rather than black history.

I asked her a few questions about the NPS in Petersburg.  Like Stewart, there was very little awareness of the Civil War growing up or the role that the park service plays in its preservation.  Coming into office in 1992 brought about her first contact with park officials.  I asked her about those initial meetings and Dance was forthcoming in suggesting that there was some tension.  I’ve explored the evolution of recent interpretive changes at Petersburg in my manuscript.  As late as 1978 a report issued by a team from Howard University found the NPS to be lacking in just about every area of interpretation as it relates to black contributions to the war and the Crater specifically.  Dance seems to have been concerned mostly with the connection between the battlefield and the city.  At one point she asked, "What is the connection to Petersburg?….What draws people to Petersburg?"  This concern can be understood as one of tourism dollars as much as it is about the extent to which the focus of the battlefield interpretation connects to a 10-month siege that enveloped the entire city and region – both black and white.  I asked about the city’s relationship with the NPS in more recent years and Dance mentioned a number of park officials by name and noted that there has been significant progress. 

It is interesting to note that Richard Stewart also offered a positive assessment of the NPS, and both mentioned that a great deal of work needs to be done from within the black community.  The central question that needs to be addressed is why, even with the changes taking place in local communities and from within the NPS, the black community continues to resist identifying the Civil War as part of its own history.  To help understand this better I will be traveling to Washington D.C. on Monday to interview Dr. Frank Smith who is the Director of the African-American Civil War Museum.  In addition to Dr. Smith I will interview three reenactors from the 54th Massachusetts, at least one of which had a bit role in the movie Glory

As an aside I should mention that Delegate Dance reminded me that on on Feb. 27, 1960 about 140 black students walked into the Petersburg Public Library in protest of segregated facilities.  Why is this important?  The library is housed in William Mahone’s home.  As we all know, Mahone’s leadership of the Readjuster Party led to the most significant change in the racial profile of Virginia’s state government as well as Richmond, Petersburg, and other cities.  So here we have a home connected with black political action in the 1880s, which was later sold to a private resident followed by its use as a public library.  That facility was segregated into the 1960s and whose director is now an African-American woman. 

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