Governor McDonnell would have us believe that his primary goal in re-instituting Confederate History Month was to promote tourism in Virginia on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. On the face of it there is nothing wrong with promoting such an agenda. Unfortunately, even a cursory glance at the content of his proclamation raises unsettling questions of whose tourist dollars the governor is interested in attracting and where he hopes those dollars will be spent:
Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today[.]
We can see clearly both who is being singled out and where those tourist dollars will end up. To the extent that we will see a boost in tourism over the next few years here in Virginia it is clear that our Civil War battlefields will benefit the most. It should come as no surprise that the major battlefields, many of them under the care of the National Park Service, will attract the vast majority of tourists and rightfully so. The proclamation also points to sites such as the Virginia Military Institute where the stories of brave soldiers can be found as well as the homes of prominent Confederate leaders such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Museums that focus predominantly on military matters will also stand to benefit from such a proclamation.
Who will visit these sites? One can answer with the utmost of confidence that it will be an overwhelmingly white audience. Anyone familiar with heritage tourism understands that it is already incredibly difficult to attract African Americans to Civil War related sites, especially along the narrow lines outlined in the proclamation. Virginia’s love affair with the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War has alienated much of the black population who remain largely suspicious of a collective memory that has ignored their story for far too long. The governor’s proclamation reinforces this suspicion.
A more inclusive proclamation would have gone far to build bridges between communities by showcasing our historic sites, museums, and other resources to the widest possible audience. If we are to believe the governor’s claim that his goal was to attract tourist dollars than why not issue a proclamation that is more inclusive and which will stand to financially benefit sites beyond battlefields and the homes of famous Confederate leaders? It should come as no surprise that many of these sites are currently experiencing difficult financial times. Where do such sites as the Black History Museum in Richmond, the Bedford Historic Meeting House, the Booker T. Washington Home, the Black Soldiers Memorial in Norfolk, and Richmond Slave Trail fit into Governor McDonnell’s goal of attracting tourist dollars? How about a proclamation that also injects some much needed energy into plans for a National Slavery Museum?
I don’t mean to suggest that whites should stick to traditional Civil War sites as outlined in the governor’s SCV/Lost Cause inspired proclamation and that blacks should visit slavery museums and other sites that frame their history. A more inclusive proclamation has the possibility, however slim, of allowing Americans to explore a much richer past. I want to see black Americans visit battlefields as well as white Americans exploring significant sites associated with slavery not as part of the others story, but as part of our collective history.