Ex­pand­ing the Civil War’s nar­ra­tive

Va. mu­seum’s CEO aims to in­clude more voices

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRE­GORY S. SCH­NEI­DER

rich­mond — Christy Cole­man spends a lot of time among ar­ti­facts of the Civil War, and two that touch her deeply are a pair of tat­tered Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flags. This seems odd for an African Amer­i­can woman, un­til she ex­plains.

One ban­ner has a sin­gle word stitched on it: Home. The white ma­te­rial of the flag, it turns out, was cut from a wed­ding dress. The other flag is a tra­di­tional Stars and Bars, like you’d see on a T-shirt or shot glass. But this one was cap­tured at the Bat­tle of the Crater in Peters­burg by United States Col­ored Troops.

Both relics hint at deeper hu­man sto­ries, and that’s where Cole­man finds mean­ing in her job as chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Amer­i­can Civil War Mu­seum, an in­sti­tu­tion cre­ated from the ru­ins of this city’s Con­fed­er­ate iron­works.

As the nation wres­tles with its her­itage of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, and as the sym­bols of the Civil War show fresh power to di­vide, no place has a deeper stake than Rich­mond — a ma­jor­ity-black city where Robert E. Lee and

Stonewall Jack­son still cast long shad­ows.

And no one is more on the spot to fig­ure it all out than Cole­man.

“To have some­one, a woman, who’s African Amer­i­can, at one of the most im­por­tant mu­se­ums in the for­mer cap­i­tal of the Con­fed­er­acy — you can’t un­der­es­ti­mate how im­por­tant that is,” said Kevin Levin, a Civil War his­to­rian. “She re­ally stands out.”

Cole­man is us­ing that po­si­tion to look for a new way to tell the story of the Civil War, a con­flict so easy to ren­der in stereo­types. With a ma­jor ex­pan­sion of the mu­seum un­der­way, her goal is to show the con­flict from mul­ti­ple points of view — not just North and South, but through the eyes of women, Na­tive Amer­i­cans, en­slaved blacks, im­mi­grants.

If you can change per­spec­tives, the think­ing goes, is­sues be­gin to look dif­fer­ent. As­sump­tions wa­ver.

That premise will be put to the test long be­fore the ex­panded mu­seum opens later this year. Cole­man is help­ing lead a com­mis­sion ap­pointed by Rich­mond’s mayor to rec­om­mend what to do with five enor­mous stat­ues of Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers along the city’s grand­est res­i­den­tial boule­vard, Mon­u­ment Av­enue.

Those stat­ues are as fun­da­men­tal to Rich­mond’s iden­tity as Thomas Jef­fer­son’s Capi­tol build­ing. Cole­man is con­scious of the vi­o­lence that has ripped other com­mu­ni­ties, such as nearby Char­lottesville, over the same is­sue. But it’s not the first time she has con­fronted the nation’s most trou­bling legacy in a con­tro­ver­sial and pub­lic way.

“Amer­ica’s reck­on­ing with her sin and her trauma,” Cole­man said, “is re­ally what we’ve got to get to.”

Giv­ing voice to the voice­less

Cole­man, 53, grew up in Wil­liams­burg, in the worka­day city be­hind Ye Olde Colo­nial Fa­cade. Her neigh­bor­hood and church were filled with the trades­peo­ple who groomed the gar­dens, sheared the sheep or ran the print­ing press in the his­toric area.

Most of the cos­tumed in­ter­preters didn’t look like Cole­man, de­spite the fact that in Colo­nial times more than half the res­i­dents of Wil­liams­burg were of African de­scent.

But she was cap­ti­vated by them and won an au­di­tion for a reen­ac­tor role when she was only 17. The other his­toric in­ter­preters wor­ried about her. “They were pre­serv­ing trades,” she said. “I was por­tray­ing an en­slaved per­son.”

She saw some­thing hor­ri­ble over­come vis­i­tors who en­coun­tered her in that role. The mod­ern ve­neer slipped aside and out came racial ep­i­thets or crude sex­ual com­ments. As a young woman, she strug­gled to process those sit­u­a­tions. But she stuck with it, the thrill of giv­ing voice to the voice­less more pow­er­ful than the re­vul­sion.

By the mid 1990s, af­ter start­ing at Wil­liam & Mary and grad­u­at­ing from Hamp­ton Univer­sity, Cole­man be­came Colo­nial Wil­liams­burg’s di­rec­tor for pub­lic history. She over­saw all of the his­tor­i­cal in­ter­preters.

One of her first big events was an an­nual mar­ket day, reen­act­ing the way Colo­nial Vir­gini­ans auc­tioned cat­tle and land. A staffer pointed out the ob­vi­ous: The real mar­ket would have sold slaves, too.

Cole­man de­cided it was time to do some­thing rad­i­cal. She took a plan to up­per man­age­ment to stage a live slave auc­tion. And she would be one of those on the sale block.

The idea touched off a na­tional de­bate. “Black and white folks thought that . . . it was go­ing to stir up stuff that didn’t need to be stirred up in Amer­ica,” Cole­man said.

A mas­sive crowd and in­ter­na­tional me­dia showed up. Plain­clothes po­lice stood among the on­look­ers, just in case. And Cole­man and three other African Amer­i­cans let them­selves be sold to the high­est bid­ders.

Today, that event is viewed as a land­mark suc­cess in the mod­ern retelling of Amer­i­can history. Af­ter gen­er­a­tions of avoid­ing the topic, other ma­jor in­sti­tu­tions — such as Thomas Jef­fer­son’s Mon­ti­cello and James Madi­son’s Mont­pe­lier — now con­front en­slave­ment as a ma­jor com­po­nent of their in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

But it ex­acted a heavy price on Cole­man. The emo­tional stress brought on panic at­tacks that stuck with her through years of ther­apy.

She never re­peated the auc­tion. A few years later, she was wooed to Detroit to run the Charles H. Wright Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can History. Nearly a decade into that job, Cole­man was mar­ried and had two small chil­dren and wanted to slow things down a bit. She got word of a small mu­seum back home in Vir­ginia that was look­ing for a shake-up.

Merg­ing two per­spec­tives

Rich­mond long por­trayed its past in a one-sided way. Af­ter the Civil War, wid­ows and wives of Con­fed­er­ate vet­er­ans gath­ered mem­o­ra­bilia and dis­played it in the old Con­fed­er­ate White House. From that col­lec­tion, ar­guably the most ex­ten­sive of its kind any­where, grew the Mu­seum of the Con­fed­er­acy.

By the turn of the 21st cen­tury, it be­came harder to raise money for an in­sti­tu­tion seen as a shrine to the Lost Cause. Across town, a new Civil War mu­seum opened in the old Tre­de­gar Iron Works, which had forged the Con­fed­er­ate ar­se­nal.

It boasted a spec­tac­u­lar lo­ca­tion and pri­vate money, but only a mod­est col­lec­tion of ar­ti­facts. The two mu­se­ums eyed each other. When Tre­de­gar needed a new leader in 2008, it asked the di­rec­tor of the Mu­seum of the Con­fed­er­acy — a gar­ru­lous for­mer banker named Waite Rawls III — to help with in­ter­views. He urged them to hire Cole­man.

“She and I hit it off pretty quickly,” Rawls said. “Christy is the con­sum­mate mu­seum pro­fes­sional. . . . I’m not. I’m a business guy who’s a very knowl­edge­able Civil War buff.”

Af­ter a few years of col­lab­o­rat­ing, they took their boards a plan to merge the mu­se­ums. It was com­pleted in 2013.

Rawls stuck with fundrais­ing as head of the foun­da­tion, and Cole­man took charge of pre­sent­ing the history at the mu­seum’s fa­cil­i­ties, which now in­cluded the White House and Tre­de­gar as well as the Lee sur­ren­der site in Ap­po­mat­tox. The com­bi­na­tion led to a huge in­flux of cash, pow­er­ing a $37 mil­lion ex­pan­sion at Tre­de­gar that when it opens this year will pro­vide a new set­ting for the big col­lec­tion.

Some saw the chang­ing mu­seum as a threat. It was now about the Civil War as a whole, in­stead of the Con­fed­er­acy. And, of course, Cole­man was in charge.

“Mr. Rawls, I think you have done a wrong thing to us,” one man said in a voice mail that Rawls saved on his com­puter. “I just want to let you know to kiss my ass, you ain’t no good, you need to get the hell out of of­fice!”

A Con­fed­er­ate legacy group launched a so­cial-me­dia cru­sade to “Stop Christy Cole­man from tak­ing our her­itage!” Lo­cal po­lice warned Cole­man to beef up se­cu­rity.

She had en­coun­tered this kind of thing be­fore. When the mu­seum dis­played a paint­ing of Abra­ham Lin­coln in the ru­ins of Rich­mond, for in­stance, a man came in who had do­nated nu­mer­ous ar­ti­facts.

He was out­raged by the paint­ing and told Cole­man that “the worst thing that ever hap­pened to our coun­try was eman­ci­pa­tion, and the rea­son be­ing is that black peo­ple have no self con­trol,” she said. He went on to say that “the fact that they have given you con­trol over our story is en­rag­ing.” He’d been watch­ing her, “ba­si­cally to see if I was a good Ne­gro or not,” she said.

Cole­man let him have his say, then told him to leave. “I said, ‘Our business to­gether is done. We will make sure that you have all of your ar­ti­facts by the end of the week’. ”

So last year, when white su­prem­a­cists marched at the Lee statue in Char­lottesville and Heather Heyer died in an attack on coun­ter­protesters, Cole­man was hor­ri­fied but not sur­prised.

“This is the s--- we’ve been talk­ing about that’s in­fil­trated [so­ci­ety] for years now,” she said. “I think the big­ger dif­fer­ence is that peo­ple feel em­bold­ened that they don’t have to keep that among a pri­vate cir­cle any­more.”

As ter­ri­ble as it was, the pub­lic agony and cry for an­swers over Char­lottesville brought home for Cole­man the im­por­tance of what she is do­ing in Rich­mond.

Pro­voke and dis­turb

Vir­ginia’s cap­i­tal is an es­pe­cially pro­found place to ex­am­ine where the Civil War fits in Amer­i­can history. So many threads weave to­gether in Rich­mond — Thomas Jef­fer­son and Jef­fer­son Davis, Pa­trick Henry and the re­bel­lious slave named Gabriel.

“The Civil War has owned this city for 150 years. It’s time for us to own the Civil War,” said Ed Ay­ers, the his­to­rian, au­thor and for­mer Univer­sity of Rich­mond pres­i­dent who chairs the mu­seum’s board.

Ay­ers said Cole­man is the right per­son to lead the way. “I think peo­ple are sur­prised to see an African Amer­i­can woman in this po­si­tion,” he said. “But to have a sin­gle con­ver­sa­tion with her is to un­der­stand that she pos­sesses this topic in a way that’s re­mark­able. . . . She’s fear­less, but also hu­mane.”

Cole­man wants to test the premise she ex­plored in Wil­liams­burg, the idea that a his­tor­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion can pro­voke and dis­turb in a con­struc­tive way.

“Mu­se­ums are not neu­tral space. We may not be ac­tivists, but we’re not neu­tral,” she said. “If your community is in cri­sis and you’re an in­sti­tu­tion that has the re­sources to add to that con­ver­sa­tion to bring it out of cri­sis, you are fail­ing if you are not ac­tively in­volved in the needs of your community.”

The key, she said, is for the mu­seum to get vis­i­tors to see points of view other than what they’re com­fort­able with. They’ll use new tech­nol­ogy — im­mer­sive dig­i­tal “ex­pe­ri­ences” — to bring life to the vast col­lec­tion of ar­ti­facts. Rather than con­cen­trate on the usual uni­forms and ri­fles, the ex­hibits will highlight mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives — North and South, en­slaved and free, sol­dier and civil­ian.

Ul­ti­mately, it’s the hu­man sto­ries that Cole­man hopes will strip away the su­per­fi­cial nar­ra­tive most peo­ple know about the Civil War and get at some­thing that’s messier, but closer to the truth.

“History is so much more com­plex and nu­anced than the com­fort­able myths that have been es­tab­lished so that ev­ery­body can feel good and say we’ve rec­on­ciled the North and South,” she said. “If you lis­ten to it, ev­ery­body in the South was for the Con­fed­er­acy and ev­ery­body in the North was for end­ing slav­ery, and nei­ther of those state­ments are true.”

Cole­man has had to go through the process her­self, to learn the fuller mean­ing be­hind objects she might oth­er­wise find ob­jec­tion­able, such as Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flags. And she’s help­ing the community work through some­thing sim­i­lar with the stat­ues on Mon­u­ment Av­enue.

Listed by the Na­tional Park Ser­vice as “the nation’s only grand res­i­den­tial boule­vard with mon­u­ments of its scale sur­viv­ing al­most un­al­tered to the present day,” Mon­u­ment Av­enue is a co­nun­drum. Any city would be proud of such an el­e­gant dis­trict, but the stat­ues of­fend many resi- dents.

Af­ter Char­lottesville, Cole­man sim­ply wanted to tear them down. “But that was a very inthe-mo­ment, very heated emo­tional re­sponse. And I know that that wasn’t re­ally my true sen­ti­ment,” she said.

She’s a lit­tle coy about what her true sen­ti­ment is. That may be partly out of pro­pri­ety — the com­mis­sion is still in fact-find­ing mode — but also be­cause she has come to see any Civil War-re­lated ar­ti­facts as al­most end­lessly com­plex.

“I feel that all of those stat­ues need . . . need . . .” she in­ter­rupted her­self with a laugh. “Well let me just say this: You can learn some­thing from any­thing. The big ques­tion is mak­ing sure that what’s be­ing taught is what you want it to say.”

Telling the whole story

One chilly Thurs­day night last month, Cole­man and three other mem­bers of the mon­u­ments com­mis­sion met with about 80 res­i­dents at the First Uni­tar­ian Univer­sal­ist Church, one of a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions be­ing held around the city.

Sen­ti­ment ran high that some­thing needed to be done about the mon­u­ments. But each per­spec­tive was slightly dif­fer­ent.

An el­derly black man de­scribed grow­ing up in seg­re­gated Rich­mond. His par­ents had to pay poll taxes to vote. The mon­u­ments must go, he said.

A mid­dle-aged white man pointed out that peo­ple own ex­pen­sive homes around those stat­ues. In­stead of tear­ing them down, use the mon­u­ments “to teach the whole history of the Civil War.”

One African Amer­i­can man growled that the stat­ues glo­rify white su­prem­a­cists. An el­derly white man re­sponded with an an­gry de­fense of Robert E. Lee.

Put the stat­ues in a ceme­tery. Put them on a bat­tle­field. Leave them where they are, but add more sig­nage. Add more stat­ues. Use tech­nol­ogy to teach peo­ple about the stat­ues on their smart­phones.

Cole­man had heard it all be­fore. But she was moved, she said, by the sin­cer­ity of so many or­di­nary peo­ple giv­ing up a week night to wres­tle with some­thing so tough.

Cole­man told the gath­er­ing a per­sonal story that at first seemed like a non sequitur. On Sept. 10, 2001, she had a breakup lunch in Man­hat­tan with a man she had thought might be the love of her life. They ate at the World Trade Cen­ter, where he worked.

The next morn­ing she watched on tele­vi­sion as two planes knocked those tow­ers down. His­toric event, per­sonal tragedy.

As the au­di­ence ab­sorbed her words, Cole­man swung back to the point. “Now, is my story about what hap­pened Septem­ber 11th the whole story? Is it com­plete?” she said. “The prob­lem is, too many peo­ple have tried to po­si­tion the Amer­i­can Civil War . . . as their own per­sonal story.”

Ev­ery statue, ev­ery ar­ti­fact, can con­tain a world of dif­fer­ent mean­ings to dif­fer­ent peo­ple.

“We can’t get right with each other,” she said, “un­til we are will­ing to lis­ten.”

“Amer­ica’s reck­on­ing with her sin and her trauma is re­ally what we’ve got to get to.” Christy Cole­man


Christy Cole­man, CEO of Rich­mond’s Amer­i­can Civil War Mu­seum, finds mean­ing in the deeper hu­man sto­ries on both sides.


His­toric Tre­de­gar is the site of the Tre­de­gar Iron Works in Rich­mond, which forged the Con­fed­er­ate ar­se­nal. The Amer­i­can Civil War Mu­seum’s fa­cil­i­ties in­clude Tre­de­gar, the Con­fed­er­ate White House in Rich­mond and the site of Robert E. Lee’s sur­ren­der...

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