If you're looking for someone who fits neatly in a box, Christy Coleman isn't your target.
She's a black leader of a Civil War museum, dealing with hot-button issues such as slavery and legacy that could send lesser souls screaming to the sidelines. But she thrives in the thick of it.
Coleman landed in Richmond in 2008 to head the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, arriving shortly before observances began to mark the war's 150th anniversary, which culminated this year. Now she is co-CEO of the American Civil War Museum, which has combined the assets of the center with those of the Museum and White House of the Confederacy and placed both CEOs on equal footing.
"Probably the toughest thing that has been accomplished has been bringing these two organizations together," Coleman said. "I can't begin to tell you how much capital and emotional intelligence and acumen was required to bring us all together in a way to move toward a new vision and new future.
"That's huge to pull off something like that, and we did it. It wasn't just me — it was definitely a collective effort — and I also know the role I played."
Her co-leader also praises her contribution.
"Christy constantly challenges us to 'do it differently' to 'reach a broader audience,' " said S. Waite Rawls III, the ACWM co-CEO who came from the Museum of the Confederacy.
He sees her as representing "a new and rare breed who recognize that history, especially Civil War history, was made by inextricably intertwined stories of blacks and whites together."
Coleman and Rawls have worked together to create a cohesive museum while conducting a campaign to raise nearly $35 million for a new building on the Tredegar campus; the Museum of the Confederacy is on Clay Street. The campaign has reached $29 million, enough to build but not enough to have a comfortable cushion for operating expenses.
"We've run into some surprises, unknowns that we could not have predicted or planned for," Coleman said.
Tunnels beneath the foundry and courtyard turned out to be 10 to 12 feet high. Footings for the new building needed to be significantly deeper or the building needed to be moved elsewhere on the property to avoid the problem.
Coleman said she is proud of "this little museum that could." The Tredegar center "was certainly near crisis when I got here. ... Bringing it around and making this property open so people could fall in love with it was also something important."
She added: "In the end, it's about having created a place that people love, not wondering what's that over there. It's involved a lot of important partnerships with other organizations."
One of the big partnerships has been with the group the Future of Richmond's Past, which planned Richmond's 150th anniversary observances from 2010 to 2015. From the beginning, organizers decided to commemorate both the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. That shift in focus broadened the appeal of the observances and fostered a spirit of reconciliation. This year, looking forward again, the group changed its name to Richmond's Journey.
Under either name, the group "has been an absolute delight and highlight," Coleman said.
John Sarvay, founder of the Floricane consultancy in Richmond, used similar phrases to describe Coleman. He has worked with her as a client and collaborator on several projects.
"She has been, for me, a real breath of fresh air," he said. "There are four things she brings that are rare to see all at once. She's really visionary but also a really smart thinker. She's an amazing storyteller but also an amazing truth-teller.
"She has a really unique ability to say really critical, hard things in a way that people can lean into. I've seen her do it and people get energized by it. They don't feel ashamed, blamed, put into a box."
Coleman grew up surrounded by history in Williamsburg, where her family moved when she was 7 from Winter Park, Fla. She attended the College of William and Mary and completed her bachelor's and master's degrees at Hampton University. In 1994, when she was director of African-American interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg, she drew international attention to a wrenching re-enactment of a slave auction that left the audience in tears.
Ten years in Williamsburg is the longest she's been in one place, and she's been in Richmond now for eight. (Before she came to Richmond, she headed the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.)
"I hope to have another 10 to 15 years in the museum world," she said. "I get phone calls and emails frequently about other opportunities in other places. For the time being I am comfortable being where I am and doing what I'm doing. I think anybody who is in a leader role who has had some measure of success, people want to talk with you.
"The viability of the organization should not be on the back of the individual. It should be on the strength of what the organization does. It should be about the stories we are telling. If I've done my job well, the organization will thrive."
IN HER WORDS
A small moment in life with a big impact
My first summer as a living-history interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg showed me I could merge my talents — academics, creativity and business interests — into a meaningful career. I had intended to be a lawyer. It really messed up the life plan I had for myself!
Something that might surprise others
I'm a fan girl. I love science fiction and fantasy, superheroes and all that stuff. From the time I was a kid, we would have adventures in my cousin's room. We would pretend we were on the Starship Enterprise. It was part of my growing up, and I never let it go. It keeps that wonder in my world.
Alternate profession or course of study
Love of theater brought me to the museum world. When it's time to say goodbye to museums, I'd like to pull a Moms Mabley and have a career in stage.
Something you’d like to do
Have a script produced for film or Broadway.
My mother, Liz Montgomery, for her resourcefulness, beauty, devotion, strength and determination. She's my hero. Even now, I'm grateful she's here with me. We can talk about things. She gives sage advice. Her job was opening new branches for a credit union. Her great love was performing. She's an amazing jazz singer. I remember watching her in sequined gowns when I was 4 or 5 backstage. She has a trio, and they're amazing.
Being a flawed but loving parent raising two remarkable people.
Favorite thing about Richmond region
Its charm and diversity.
Position: co-CEO, American Civil War Museum
Born/hometown: 1964; Winter Park, Fla.
College: Hampton University (bachelor's and master's degrees)
Family: husband Art Espy, children Christopher and Aniya