This popular Currier & Ives print from 1865, depicting the evacuation of Richmond, Virginia, is one of the most popular images of the city in April 1865. It is impossible not to drive north toward the city on I-95 without it entering your mind’s eye. Now it is being used by the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau to attract tourists to the city’s rich Civil War history as well as the rest of the state.
The use of this particular print is a clever marketing technique that almost functions as a gestalt switch between two interpretations. On the one hand, we know this image as marking the end of the Confederacy, but in the hands of the Visitors Bureau it is now a symbol of new beginnings. We can freely move back and forth between the two interpretations.
To use this image, however, is to be reminded that the burning and evacuation of Richmond did lead to the emancipation of thousands of Richmond slaves that were freed by the Union army. It is story that all Americans ought to explore if they are truly interested in the American Civil War. Of course, we are likely to hear the same tired rumblings from certain quarters, but let’s be clear about one thing. While good marketing works to sway the perceptions of potential customers it must begin by acknowledging how they currently view their world and what will motivate them to take action.
In this case it is safe to say that this ad builds on certain cultural, social, and political changes that have been at work in Richmond for the past three decades.
I understand that the Internet and social media sites can be an empowering place. It also has a powerful democratizing effect, which I value. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s voice ought to be given equal weight. Though it should be utilized with discretion, sometimes the most appropriate response is the back of the hand. Here is a case where this applies.
This is for those of you who are convinced that the scholarship around the antebellum period, slavery, and secession is fundamentally misguided. My response to you: I DON’T CARE! That may seem a bit dismissive, but that is exactly what I mean to say. I am not interested in what you learned from reading the Dixie Outfitters website, The South Was Right or one of your other Pelican Press books. I am also not interested in your assumptions about what motivates academic historians. Your theories about how some vaguely defined political agenda influences research is of no interest to me.
I’ve read a pretty large chunk of the scholarly literature on slavery and secession and one thing that has been established over the past few decades is that the South’s “peculiar institution” is central to understanding secession and the Civil War. The post photo includes just a small number of relevant books from my personal library. It’s not meant to make you feel insecure, but to give you a sense of how I approach the study of history. My understanding of this subject comes from reading these books, most of them written by professional historians. I spend a great deal of time reading books and journals, not because I’ve become seduced by the academic world, but because these books constitute my education in this area of history. You are going to have to do better if you hope to convince me that the broad interpretation that emerges from these studies is fundamentally flawed.
If critical scholarship is not your cup of tea, so be it. Just please don’t expect me to take you seriously or imagine that I have any interest in your personal beliefs about Civil War history. We are simply on different pages. We have divergent ideas of what it means to engage in the study of history. In the end it’s not a big deal. You are free to discuss your personal beliefs on your own webpage or Facebook site or wherever you can find like-minded people.
I have never been, and I have no plans to…. These people are still fighting the Civil War. They’re just not honest about the history and the story.
Khalfani’s bio page includes the following:
My greatest accomplishment is that I am by choice a revolutionary Afrikan Man. I am a Pan-Afrikanist. I am one who speaks truth to power unashamedly on behalf of Afrikan people. I have not cringed or cowered when faced with criticism, ostracism or threats of bodily harm.
Perhaps the Civil War just doesn’t fall on the radar screen of someone who self-identifies as an Afrikan Man or Pan-Afrikanist. That’s fine. What I do have a problem with, however, is when we speak truth to power without any evidence behind the action. Khalfani is no better than the Virginia Flaggers, Ed Sebesta, and the SCV, who have done next to nothing to explore what the Museum of the Confederacy has to offer.
I spent a few minutes on the Virginia NAACP’s website and I can’t find anything having to do with the Civil War Sesquicentennial. How unfortunate. Of course, other issues demand attention and resources, but this is a unique opportunity to connect the African American community in Virginia to an incredibly rich history. The Museum of the Confederacy is an essential stop along that journey. I’ve written quite a bit about the challenges associated with attracting African Americans to Civil War related events. To the extent that an adult white male can sympathize, I get it. That said, at some point we have to move beyond these irresponsible outbursts.
It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago the future of the Museum of the Confederacy was in doubt. There was a talk about a name change and even a move away from their location next to the Confederate White House. Now, all eyes are on Appomattox, where the museum will open a new branch next weekend. It is the largest sesquicentennial project to date and is a testament to the vision and talent of the museum staff. I wish I could be there.
Let’s be clear. None of these protests matter because neither the Flaggers nor the SCV offer a vision of their own. They’ve done nothing to reach out to the public with anything approaching a positive plan of how to commemorate and further our understanding of this crucial period in American history. The future of the MOC in Appomattox and even in Richmond has very little to do with these two groups.
Their relative success will be determined by how well they tell the story of the Confederacy and the broader history of the period and their effectiveness in engaging the broader community, especially the schools. This is a wonderful opportunity for the MOC to engage those groups that they have had difficulty connecting with in the Richmond area.
Most reasonable people will not be turned off by this silliness surrounding the display of the Confederate flag; in fact, most people who visit won’t be aware of it at all. Finally, it’s OK to disagree with MOC’s decision, but that is not necessarily a reason not to visit. Go with an open mind and share your thoughts in a constructive way re: the flag or other aspects of the exhibit if you are moved to do so. You are bound to learn something either way. Not everything has to be framed as an all or nothing choice.