GUNNING FOR CONFLICT AND GETTING HARD TRUTHS: Richmond and Williamsburg, Virginia
Leaving Fredericksburg and heading to Richmond, always gunning for conflict and controversy, I reviewed Virginia’s recent fights over Confederate icons. Even among the young, the Lost Cause still caused trouble throughout the state. In the Blue Ridge valley town of Lexington, law students at Washington and Lee University won demands to have Robert E. Lee’s ownership of enslaved people denounced. They also had Confederate flags removed from a campus chapel, but only after considerable pushback from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In Richmond, students at Freeman High School had a schism over elimination of their mascot, the Rebel Man. A petition was circulated to retain the Rebel, easily gathering over a thousand signatures, while senior Charlie Bonner became a target of resentment when he spearheaded the movement to replace the mascot. “For many current Freeman students and teachers, seeing a Confederate soldier brings up images of violent inequality and their struggle to rebuild a decimated culture,” he told the Washington Post. For his efforts, Charlie was ridiculed and instructed to commit suicide on social media. Over a year after the Rebel mascot petition, controversy over Virginia’s Confederate icons remained so volatile that Freeman High’s principal did not respond to any of my many appeals for conversation.
As George and I entered Richmond, we decided to visit the Museum of the Confederacy first. We wondered whether it would be another cluttered Confederate attic of nostalgia and revisionism cloaked as “heritage.” I confess to hoping I would find stubborn, and quotable, expressions of Lost Cause bitterness.
Although it shared a snug block with the White House of the Confederacy, the downtown museum itself was a relic of mid 20th Century architecture, concrete brutalism squeezed under, beside and between the walls of an expanding university hospital, almost hidden at the end of a long driveway. It turned out to be surprising in its seriousness and depth, reflected in a complete wall display of the key battles of the Civil War as they unfolded in time and place. The collection’s centerpiece was a comprehensive array of Confederate flags in their many permutations over time. John Coski, the museum historian best known for The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem would soon become the national media’s go-to guy in the wake of the Charleston church massacre and its explosive renewal of the Rebel flag controversy across the South.
I met John Coski after his museum lecture on the Civil War’s true ending, or endings, in which he’d stressed how common desertion and looting were among the Confederate soldiers near the war’s finale, even worse amid the chaos in the far-flung western battle fronts, especially in Arkansas. Hardly Lost Cause mythology, though John told me the museum had in fact been founded in 1890 as a shrine to Confederacy. “Lost Causers consider the modern museum itself to be the lost cause now that we strive to be objective. They view our relics and artifacts as icons. They see us as defaming, being sacrilegious.” Along with a new building, the museum plans to expand with a civil rights focus. Some find this change controversial, diffusing its mission. “But we can have a Nixon-in-China advantage,” John explained. “We can capitalize on it to be a positive force in educating the community.”
While appalled by regional nurturing of grievances across the South, he was just as irritated by Northern preaching about “freeing slaves” as the sole motive for engaging in civil war—“true but oversimplified.” He noted the national attention on mistreatment of Union POWs at Andersonville, Georgia, which, appalling as it was, was “probably worse for Confederates at the camp at Elmira, New York, but untold. These falsehoods feed Southern identification as a besieged minority, resenting the North’s holier than thou narrative. White Southerners are the last acceptable stereotype for ridicule,” he lamented, which helped well-nurtured grievances stay alive across the South.
So far in Virginia we’d found few signs of hard core conflict over commemoration, and I dared to hope I would hear some heated words in my conversation with African-American state senator Donald McEachin. He’d taken bold action to protest attempts to overlook Virginia’s ongoing struggle against racial mistreatment and inequality. As a representative in the House of Delegates from adjacent Henrico County in 2007, McEachin introduced a bill expressing “profound regret” for Virginia’s enslavement of African Americans and exploitation of natives on the 400th anniversary of English settlement at Jonestown. The resolution passed unanimously in both chambers, unprecedented in American legislative history.4 But the legislature didn’t follow this progressive direction in 2014, when it introduced another resolution honoring Virginia’s ardent segregationist, Senator Harry Byrd, instrumental in shuttering the state’s public schools in the 1950s. As a state senator now, McEachin joined a spontaneous Black Caucus walkout when the vote passed.
When I asked if the protest had lasting effect, the senator sounded surprised that I expected any. He said it was not so important to have an effect on the other senators, changing hearts and minds, but to be true to oneself. “For me, the walkout was individual. Personal.” He felt integration in education had been misinterpreted, often overlooking the importance of school boards being integrated, not only classrooms. “Funding needs to be provided in full for every school’s programs and materials,” he added, stressing that integration has been a clear success in improving African Americans’ access to better educational facilities—a success often overlooked, which is why McEachin found honoring the legacy of Harry Byrd so intolerable.
The senator detailed progressive setbacks that continue well into the 21st Century, including efforts at voting access and exempting Virginia from EPA mandates. We discussed the ongoing disconnect between coastal concerns over sea level rise versus inland conservatives who cannot abide any possibility of climate change’s role in the oceanic floods lapping at Norfolk’s doors. But McEachin remained sanguine about the possibility of progress. He expressed a warm regard for his Southern roots, declaring that though he felt American first, he was emphatically Southern and Virginian next. McEachin felt especially Southern when he went north, distanced by Yankee coolness in human encounters and missing the warm niceties of Southern encounters. As an African-American in the South, he said, “at least one knows where one stands with race—it gets expressed, not obscured, as in the North.” When I asked about his hopes for Virginia’s future, the senator blew my mind, his voice sincere and passionate. “I am full of hope. Virginia will lead the US renaissance in race relations and civil rights. The healing will arise on the honest basis of what Virginia has already confronted and worked to change.”
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Driving from Richmond to Williamsburg, George and I didn’t know what to expect. Would Historic Williamsburg be a frill sewn onto the American Pageant, a decorative disguise for our nation’s rough-edged colonial origin story? Would it celebrate a fake history imposed on Virginia’s colonial capital?
Before we knew it, we were crossing a martial mustering yard, two uneasy, clueless tourists watching 1770’s fife and drum demonstrations from various parts of the country. A living history project—the Revolutionary City—surrounded us.
We engaged a history enactor at a nearby apothecary shop. Mostly staying in 18th Century character, Aubrey Moog freely discussed women’s 1770s roles, insisting “Williamsburg women had to be seen outside of modern expectations.” In their own way they had “soft power” within family and community as well as becoming successful business owners. She filled in a fascinating portrait of colonial Virginia, where most colonists were small farmers, after all, absorbed in a constant struggle to survive. Here in the capital, though, women could exercise some freedom where the more complex economy had more opportunity, and could own property (powers soon to be restricted during and after the Revolutionary War). In royal matters and colonial governance, Aubrey stressed that most men couldn’t vote, either, except for the white Protestant property owners—and only those with developed land—and only in sending delegates to the House of Burgess.
Aubrey sketched an unrelenting portrait of a purely privatized, stratified economy. Most people didn’t gain education or even literacy and numeracy unless there was a practical need for knowledge. With no public schools, a man’s level of educational attainment matched one’s economic status, while women’s formal learning was even more unlikely.
A caste system was in effect, every individual carefully positioned on a social spectrum. Even curtseying signaled superior or inferior rankings by the length and depth of the gesture. A well-positioned black person, such as a governor’s slave, might secretly look down on whites from poorer working families. In colonial era Williamsburg, blacks probably had better relations with white society than later in the American enslavement calamity—even more atrocious in the early and mid 1800s—and were often skilled artisans. More than half of Williamsburg’s population, enslaved people would often have Sundays free to roam and could visit beyond the capital. A white assistant apothecary, say, could have a friendship with a slave. One wealthy business matron freed all her slaves and was rumored to have an “intimacy” with one of the males she owned.
Despite the stratification, Williamsburg’s social manners were looser and more bawdy than those of New England’s Puritan culture. “Christmas involved multiple days of drinking and debauchery, and sexual intimacy could be very public,” Aubrey told us. Virginia was founded on economic advancement, profit, entrepreneurial expansion and individual struggle, not on Puritan spiritual ideals and rule-bound repression, a sharp contrast set to explode into North-South conflict in eighty years.
As George and I took leave of Aubrey and strolled to the Capitol, we became enmeshed in a staged drama that began at the gates and then unfolded beside and all around us. Costumed advocates for independence read proclamations from the Continental Congress, while colonists gave impassioned speeches farther down the main street against the royal menace. The acting and costumes were credible enough to keep the whole Colonial Williamsburg shebang from descending into cheesy melodrama. The street staging intensified with the dramatic return of a young local man who was regarded as a spy for the Crown.
I appreciated the tone of doubt, debate, and fog-of-war contestation; nothing was simplified, nor were we persuaded to cheer the American Pageant version (though some visitors, prodded by actors, did call for the young man to be hanged). Out of this tumult, a much more intimate drama unfolded down the street between two slaves, Agnes and Jack, who were romancing each other but were haunted by losses of their former partners—Jack’s wife and child sold away to unknown locale and Agnes’ husband gone to an early death. After we witnessed their uneasy back-and-forth, in which their deprivations molded their wariness, we were joyously led to a stage where Jack and Agnes jumped the broom.
The following morning, George and I compared impressions of Williamsburg’s surprising reality-based presentation of colonial history, skillfully blending entertainment with unblinkered facts about America’s original sins. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s current approach was a deliberate focus on strict accuracy in its mission of citizen education. The Foundation’s had evolved since the 1950’s when Virginia was so steeped in segregation that blacks could only visit Williamsburg one day a week and black enactors had to live in separate (but equal, I’m sure) quarters.
George mentioned the relatively few African-Americans present at Williamsburg, either as visitors or re-enactors. We had seen a few blacks in colonial costume the day before, and spent the second morning re-exploring Williamsburg in search of “Africans.” In front of the silver shop, we eventually found a thirtyish guy, who immediately told me he wasn’t in character today, just directing people into the shop and checking tickets, and didn’t want me to use his real name. “Cooper” was pragmatic about the whole concept of slavery, and viewed it globally—in Rome, for example, and in Africa itself long before the Atlantic trade. Cool, he viewed the entire enterprise of Virginia colony as about making money and viewed slavery as “a necessary extension of that purpose.” Yet Cooper viewed the daily lives of slaves in Williamsburg as more horrific than Aubrey did, stressing owners’ brutality. “Though they were the majority, slaves did not rebel because their families and loved ones left behind would be punished.” As pragmatic as he was, Cooper felt that emotional bonds were far stronger than all others, which explained why slave owners used fear of breaking up families as a form of control.
Ironically for a man working in the costumes and living the roles of the Revolutionary era, Cooper felt his own history education in school had been unbearably boring. Most of what he knew of early American history came from his work here at Williamsburg as well as study on his own. He revealed that though he grew up twenty minutes away, he’d never heard of Colonial Williamsburg as a living history museum and only learned of it through a girlfriend who worked there. He had an unemployed brother-in-law who refused to earn his keep by getting a Williamsburg job “because he didn’t want to dress like a clown.” Cooper had an opposing attitude; thwarted from access to this historical site as a schoolboy, he made a career of immersing himself in its widening narratives.
Cooper was less than enchanted with the average visitor. When he was in role as a 1770’s enslaved character, he encountered a few visitors who “tried to play back but don’t have a set of instructions,” voicing no end of anachronisms and off-tune racial innuendo. Once, when Cooper was working outside the jailhouse monitoring visitors on the steps, a white man approached him and asked first thing, “What did you do to land in jail?”
This struck me as an almost too-perfect encapsulation of our renewed struggle with racial equality in the two-thousand teens and our national need for the kind of honest “citizen education” that Colonial Williamsburg is reenacting.
At our next stop in North Carolina’s Inner Banks, we’d get tangled in the swamp of citizen education for ourselves, visiting the site of a 60’s school boycott and its angry backlash—and the wounds still open today.