A Few More Thoughts About Christy Coleman

A couple of weeks ago I did an interview with a Washington Post reporter for a profile story about Christy Coleman, who is the CEO of The American Civil War Museum in Richmond. I spent a good 30 minutes with the reporter and spoke about my professional and personal relationship with Christy. Most of it didn’t make it into the story.

I shared one particular story that I believe perfectly captures Christy’s professionalism and commitment to addressing some of the most difficult issues surrounding public history and the Civil War and Civil War memory.

About five years ago I co-led a group of roughly 30 history educators on a 10-day tour of Civil War battlefields that stretched from Nashville, Tennessee to Washington, D.C. The group was overwhelmingly white with only three female African American educators. I didn’t given much thought to this imbalance, but I should have given that the people we came into contact with, especially the interpreters at the various sites were overwhelmingly white.

Things came to a head while stuck in highway traffic outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. To pass the time the group decided to watch the movie, Glory. The three black teachers immediately objected. They didn’t want to have to sit there and ‘watch white people shoot black people.’ I am convinced that their objection wasn’t as much a commentary about the movie as it was about our trip thus far. I was completely taken aback by their response and there was little I could do alone to repair the damage.

At a rest stop I conferred with the other guide. I knew we were planning a stop in the Richmond area at one of the battlefields. Instead of another battlefield, I suggested that we stop at the Civil War museum at Tredegar, specifically to look at how they integrate the subject of slavery and race in their main exhibit. The other reason that I suggested it is because I thought there might be a chance to bring Christy to talk to the group.

I called her up and explained our situation. Christy immediately agreed to spend some time with us on a Saturday, her day off. In short, Christy saved this trip. She spent a good hour talking with us about the challenges of leading a Civil War museum as an African American woman in the former capital of the Confederacy. She touched on many of the issues referenced in the Washington Post piece.

Glancing over at the three women I could see that this was just what they needed to hear. One of them approached me later to say thank you and shared that she finally felt like she belonged on the trip. I learned a number of important lessons that day from these three women as well as Christy.

I could say that this was an unusual thing for someone in Christy’s position to do on her day off, but this is how she rolls. Her commitment to Richmond and educating the public is unmatched.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to see this profile piece about Christy Coleman. She is one of the most important voices in the field of public history and vital to the cultural life of Richmond, Virginia.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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4 comments… add one
  • Stephen Apr 16, 2018 @ 15:31

    I remember reading your summary following the trip in Aug 2013 (The Face of Public History). With your most recent note, I now understand & appreciate why “A few teachers expressed concern that the tours were conducted all by whites.”

    Of the many Civil War historic sites that I’ve visited, the Stowe House in Cincinnati was the only one interpreted by an African American woman, the site’s director.

  • Larry Cebula Apr 16, 2018 @ 10:29

    What a nice tribute!

  • Buck Buchanan Apr 16, 2018 @ 6:26

    Hear hear!!!

    A great story. Ms. Coleman is a valuable addition to the Civil War story.

    • Dennis Lawrence Apr 16, 2018 @ 9:30

      I had the privilege or hearing her speak when she was with Williamsburg and I was part of the Stratford Hall Seminar on Slavery. It was shortly after the very controversial slave auction there. I was glad to read in a profile of her and Trdegar that she did not regret it and how it had opened up conversations that needed to be had at Williamsburg and in the historical community.

      I also had the opportunity to tour Tredegar with Charles Dew author of Ironmaker for the Confederacy. He was able to fill in the gaps of the story of African Americans in the site. I am glad she has come back to Virginia and is transforming Tredegar so every visitor has that story.

      Race is the great unanswered question in America, and she has spent her career promoting courageous conversations to answer it.

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