"New Beginnings" at the AASLH
The AASLH (American Association for State and Local History) just concluded its annual meeting, held in Richmond, VA. Signs of "new beginnings" in local history—a phrase used in the conference title, abounded, both at AASLH and in Richmond. Just in time, too!
My book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong has at least one entry for every state. Virginia received eight, more than any other state, and Richmond supplied four of those. I visited the city several times in the late 1990s and found it overrun by a neo-Confederate interpretation of its past. Since then, new voices have been raised that famously contest Richmond's past. Arthur Ashe got added to Monument Row. A good historical marker went up, telling the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, spy for the Union. An amazing monument telling about Virginia's massive resistance to school desegregation and the courage of black students in bringing the case now stands on the Capitol grounds. A statue of Lincoln and his son Tad, commemorating their bold walk through Richmond shortly after its surrender, drew protests from the Sons of Confederate Veterans but remains on the landscape at Tredegar Ironworks. Tredegar also boasts a new Civil War museum, telling the story from three viewpoints: Confederate, Union, and African American.
AASLH is also changing. I was the AASLH banquet speaker last year in Oklahoma City and found that almost 80 percent of that national audience believed the Southern states had seceded "for states' rights." That kind of traditional thinking seemed missing in Richmond.
AASLH built Richmond's sites into its program. For example, on the first day of the conference, Richmond natives Sylvester Turner and Cricket White led a tour titled "Walking Through History, Honoring Sacred Stories." We began at a landing point on the James River where ships disembarked enslaved Africans. Turner minced no words, reminding us of the literally putrid condition we would have been in as we made our way to the shore. Then we walked perhaps half a mile holding hands, simulating a coffle, stepping slowly to accommodate our slowest member, likely a child. Mosquitoes attacked us, requiring us to cooperate to brush them off or to drop character and hands and swat them; either response helped us feel the discomfort members of the coffle would have experienced.
Hope in the Cities organizes these walking tours at least twice a month, usually for school groups, but also for as many as 150 adults. Individuals can also walk the trail, however, owing to about sixteen historical markers with extensive text and illustrations. Again, these are hard-hitting; one heading, for example, was "Despair." Cricket White's husband Ralph White, who runs the James River Park System, wrote a booklet, "Seeing the Scars of Slavery in the Natural Environment: An Interpretive Guide to the Manchester Slave Trail Along the James River in Richmond," that the Park System put out in 2002.
At a turn-around point, Turner noted that coffles sometimes had to walk from Richmond all the way to Natchez, MS. Our destination, which we reached by bus, was Robert Lumpkin's slave yard and jail near Richmond's Main St. railroad station. Lies Across America told the story of Lumpkin, one of the biggest slave dealers in the U.S., and lamented that nothing on the Richmond landscape memorialized any form of the slave trade. In 2008, Richmond hired archaeologists to explore Lumpkin's property, called by African Americans in 1850 the "Devil's Half Acre." They unearthed many objects, a beautifully paved yard, and foundations of the jail and other buildings. To preserve it, they covered it all back up, but three historical markers tell its story. Nearby is one of the few manifestations anywhere in the world of the triangular trade, from West Africa to the U.S. (and the Caribbean) and the United Kingdom. This is a sculpture, "Reconciliation," unveiled in 2007 before a crowd of 5,000 people. Also spearheaded by Hope in the Cities, similar monuments stand in Benin and Liverpool.
More traditional conference fare was a panel the next day, "Interpreting Divergent Voices and Challenging Narratives." Although traditional in form, it was innovative in content. One speaker told how an upper-class home in Richmond, complete with gold faucets and silk wallpaper, now narrates the story of "the help" — years before the recent bestselling novel. Another told of Colonial Williamsburg's tentative beginnings toward interpreting Native Americans, surely overdue, since Native tribes from as far away as present-day Pennsylvania and Ohio came to the town to treat with the English. The room was full. Other conference panels had titles like "Remembering Even When It Hurts" and "Programming Outside the Civil War Box." These sessions too drew large audiences.
Several sessions focused on the Civil War, an obvious choice, given the year and locale. I organized a session, "Secession and the Confederacy: Issues for Local History Sites," that was well-attended. I presented the discouraging results of my widespread polling about the cause(s) of secession. (See my Washington Post piece, reprinted at HNN.) Dwight Pitcaithley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service, told that of the 65 constitutional amendments proposed in 1860-61 to defuse the crisis, 95 percent dealt with slavery, providing additional evidence that the maintenance and extension of slavery was indeed its leading cause. John Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond explored some of the problems facing museums as they try to tell this story accurately. He also noted that as they moved beyond their K-12 schooling, some adults, including site managers, feel a need to move beyond "slavery" as "the cause" of secession, leading them astray.
There were three keynotes. Adam Goodheart, journalist and author of the new book 1861, suggested historic sites needed to "complexify" their narratives. Since he included few specifics, this advice could lead to mischief, as Coski pointed out. Dorothy Cotton, formerly education director for the SCLC, gave an autobiographical talk that shaded into a civil rights rally, to the delight of many members of the audience. Ed Ayers, historian and new president of the University of Richmond, spoke on the Civil War, emphasizing emancipation and pointing out that we must make even our newest immigrants think of it as "their" history, leading to rights and conflicts that still affect all of us. Applause interrupted him twice before he finished.
Local history is no longer the intellectual backwater that many academic historians formerly assumed. Many site managers pine to discuss historical issues, and academicians who pine for engaged readers need to consider composing exhibit narratives as well as pedagogical monographs. The twain can meet at places like AASLH.
Richmond, too, is no longer the intellectual backwater that it used to be. During my three days there, the only lack of candor I saw was near the beginning of the slave walk. It begins at the river, just below a sewage disposal plant. Richmond calls the plant its "Excess Nutrient Treatment Facility." Of course, like everywhere else, shit happens in Richmond. What we learned at the AASLH conference is that in the area of public history, Richmond is finding the courage to face its past honestly—all of it.
Copyright James Loewen
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