Category Archives: Public History

Should a Statue of Oliver Hill Be Placed On Monument Avenue?

On Sunday civil rights attorney Oliver Hill died at 100.  From the Washington Post:

Mr. Hill was born May 1, 1907, in Richmond, but he was raised here in the District. He graduated from Dunbar High School and earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree at Howard University. Thurgood Marshall, who would later be the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court, was a classmate, colleague and friend. Mr. Hill went back to Richmond and became the first black person elected to the City Council since 1898. But it was the gnawing unfairness of the court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld separate but equal public facilities as constitutional, that fed Mr. Hill’s passion for using the law to correct injustice.

Mr. Hill was the lead lawyer in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., which challenged "separate but equal" as applied to public schools. Yearning for a roof that didn’t leak and a better learning environment helped change America; Davis was one of five cases that the Supreme Court combined in 1954 when it ruled, in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, that segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. Mr. Hill’s legacy as a Virginia lawyer is a raft of lawsuits that expanded everything from voting rights to employment protections. Like so many in the civil rights movement, he endured threats to his safety and to his family. And like so many in the civil rights movement, Mr. Hill was undeterred.

I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Hill back in April at the annual meeting of the Virginia Social Science Association where I thanked him for his service to the nation.  There is already discussion regarding the proper way to remember and commemorate Hill’s service to the Commonwealth and the nation.  A statue of Hill will be 1 of 17 to be placed on a monument to Virginia’s civil rights leaders on Capitol Square in Richmond; however, Ray Mcallister of the Richmond Times-Dispatch is already asking whether a statue of Hill ought to be placed on Monument Avenue. 

I think it is a wonderful idea given that Monument Avenue is where Richmonders place their heroes.  Of course, not everyone is happy and any article about the changing profile of this historic avenue will attract the attention of the SCV as if they have some special claim to this location. 

But Henry Kidd, a former national officer of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said yesterday: "Oliver Hill does not belong on Monument Avenue. . . . Monument Avenue was dedicated to Civil War generals, and I believe it should stay that."  He and others had objected to the inclusion of Ashe, a tennis legend and humanitarian.  Kidd, of Colonial Heights, said the issue is not Hill but the location. "I have no problem with Mr. Hill having a statue [somewhere else]."

There is a slight semantic obscurity that often accompanies such arguments.  It is true that Monument Avenue was used as a place to dedicate monuments to Civil War leaders, but does that imply that it must?  Does anybody know if there was anything ever written that this particular street must be used indefinitely only for Confederate officers? 

I agree that the SCV has the right to voice its concerns regarding the changing historic landscapes in their communities, and I agree that serious debate and discussion ought to precede such changes.  That said, I am tired of having to consider their views as if they have some special claim to this street.  It belongs to all Richmonders and its citizens have the right to decide what it should look like.  The fact that the avenue had been used specifically as a site for Confederate monuments (up until the dedication of the Ashe statue in 1996) reflects a past defined by white political control and nothing close to a consensus view.  More importantly, such a proposal would involve altering, removing, or destroying not one statue already on Monument Avenue. 

Regardless of whether a statue of Hill is placed on Capitol Square or Monument Avenue it will at least give Richmonders an opportunity to think about who really dedicated his life to freedom and equality.


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. 


A Monument Worthy of Virginia’s Capitol

Hill On Monday four Lucy Addison Middle School children assisted Governor Tim Kaine in unveiling plans to construct a new monument to 16-year old Barbara Johns who in 1951 "launched a two-week strike at her all-black Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville to protest the separate and unequal conditions in her school."  The protest eventually resulted in a court case that became part of Brown v. Board of Education which was argued by Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson.  Their likenesses will also be reflected on the memorial.   The story of the Moton High protest can be found here.

I recently met Oliver Hill, who is now 100-years old, at the Annual Meeting of the Virginia Social Science Association.  I served on the Board of Directors and this year we decided to award Mr. Hill with a special service award.  It was an honor to meet the man and I had a chance to thank him for his important contributions to civil rights in Virginia and throughout the country.   You can browse the website for the memorial for additional information and even make a contribution.  This is a worthy cause and one that will enrich the landscape of Capitol Square in Richmond. 

Much can be inferred about a community based on the events and individuals that it chooses to honor.  Here is a project that honors the actions of Americans who worked to bring this country closer to its founding ideals and beyond a perspective weighed down by a deep-seated racism.  I can’t wait to see it. 


New Study of the Civil War Centennial

This is a book that I’ve been looking forward to for some time.  Little has been published about the Civil War Centennial celebrations and even less on its continued influence on the way we remember.  Much of what has been published has in fact been written by Robert Cook who is the author of the present study.  Two essay come to mind, including a recent Journal of Southern History article and another which appeared in the edited collection, Legacy of Disunion by Susan Mary-Grant and Peter J. Parish.  Here is the description for Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (forthcoming June 2007):

In 1957, Congress voted to set up the United States Civil War Centennial Commission. A federally funded agency within the Department of the Interior, the commission’s charge was to oversee preparations to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the central event in the Republic’s history. Politicians hoped that a formal program of activities to mark the centennial of the Civil War would both bolster American patriotism at the height of the cold war and increase tourism in the South. Almost overnight, however, the patriotic pageant that organizers envisioned was transformed into a struggle over the Civil War’s historical memory and the injustices of Jim Crow. In Troubled Commemoration, Robert J. Cook recounts the planning, organization, and ultimate failure of this controversial event and reveals how the broad-based public history extravaganza was derailed by its appearance during the decisive phase of the civil rights movement.

Cook shows how the centennial provoked widespread alarm among many African Americans, white liberals, and cold warriors because the national commission failed to prevent southern whites from commemorating the Civil War in a racially exclusive fashion. The public outcry followed embarrassing attempts to mark secession, the attack on Fort Sumter, and the South’s victory at First Manassas, and prompted backlash against the celebration, causing the emotional scars left by the war to resurface. Cook convincingly demonstrates that both segregationists and their opponents used the controversy that surrounded the commemoration to their own advantage. Southern whites initially embraced the centennial as a weapon in their fight to save racial segregation, while African Americans and liberal whites tried to transform the event into a celebration of black emancipation.

Forced to quickly reorganize the commission, the Kennedy administration replaced the conservative leadership team with historians, including Allan Nevins and a young James I. Robertson, Jr., who labored to rescue the centennial by promoting a more soberly considered view of the nation’s past. Though the commemoration survived, Cook illustrates that white southerners quickly lost interest in the event as it began to coincide with the years of Confederate defeat, and the original vision of celebrating America’s triumph over division and strife was lost.

The first comprehensive analysis of the U.S. Civil War Centennial, Troubled Commemoration masterfully depicts the episode as an essential window into the political, social, and cultural conflicts of America in the 1960s and confirms that it has much to tell us about the development of the modern South.

It would have been nice to have this book as I finished up my project on memory and the Crater.  Click here for excerpts from pamphlets published by the Virginia Civil War Centennial Commission.  While there were plans at the beginning of the centennial to commemorate the battle of the Crater on July 30, 1964 enthusiasm clearly dropped off owing to the Civil Rights Movement and interpretive divisions within various centennial committees.


More Reasons for the Museum of the Confederacy To Stay in Richmond

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.