Asked Ed Ayers what he likes best about Richmond and you won't hear about its great restaurants, museums or river.

Instead, he'll tell you he likes Richmond's "combination of being somewhere in particular, with an important and complicated past, and the determination of so many people here to move forward."

Ayers propelled that move forward - not just in his work as president of the University of Richmond but in helping the city begin to reconcile its legacy of slavery for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War's end.

Ayers, a scholar of the American South, provided the "historical and spiritual guidance" that resulted in a more inclusive commemoration and helped shift the way Richmonders think about their history, said attorney Robert J. Grey Jr., a partner with Hunton & Williams.

"He has the passion for this that moves you to want to understand it better and to appreciate it at a different level," said Grey, who was among the early promoters of a series of community conversations that Ayers named the Future of Richmond's Past.

"You just don't find somebody with that kind of historical perspective who is also objective," Grey said. "And he is very objective but very passionate about it being important to understanding who we are today and why we did the things we did and how we can build on that."

Edward L. Ayers stepped down June 30 after eight years as president of UR to return to the historical research that dispelled some myths that had clouded the war's centennial celebration.

Two years ago, Ayers was honored at the White House with a National Humanities Medal for digital innovations that made the past visible and documentation accessible. What he describes as "the raw materials of the past" - slave ledgers, the text of secession debates, newspapers, letters and diaries - helped inform the series of community conversations leading up to the sesquicentennial.

As the commemoration approached, Ayers and other civic leaders directed meetings that were held in church sanctuaries and campus auditoriums, at times bringing together descendants of slaves and slave-holders for an emotional reckoning.

Ayers said the most important goal for the commemoration was "to call people's attention to two huge events that were braided together." 

"To do justice to one, you had to do justice to the other," he said. "I think people might be surprised at how little resistance we met to that idea."

Ayers credits the National Park Service with paving the way for that acceptance more than a decade ago through its work to tie the history of slavery with Civil War sites.

But others give a large measure of credit to Ayers for engaging the diverse groups with a stake in how the war would be remembered this time.

"He's authentic. I think that honesty is a way he builds trust in a very charged and volatile issue," Grey said.

Sandra G. Treadway, the librarian of Virginia, recalls Ayers bringing together the heads of Richmond's historic organizations and challenging "us to think differently about how we would tell this story during the commemoration so it would be inclusive.

"The intent was to make it a more complete and true-to-life story with the understanding that that would make it a more complicated story, too," she said. "But that's when history becomes closer to life, because most of life is more complicated than just blue or gray or black and white."

Grey, who is African-American, said it is too soon to determine how much change of heart resulted from the sesquicentennial, which culminated in April with thousands of people coming to Capitol Square to witness the re-enactment of the fall of Richmond and hear the stories of newly freed slaves.

But the impact will be felt in years to come "as people digest it, internalize it and kind of live it," he said.

Ayers helped Richmonders appreciate "that history is more complicated, much more nuanced and a lot more integrated than we've been led to believe," Grey said. "All of that doesn't come out when you're just focused on the Confederate flag, for example."

When Ayers announced plans to step down at UR, he said, several people asked him why he would leave when everything was going so well.

"It's just that I have other things I want to do," said Ayers, who is on sabbatical while he completes his next book, "The Thin Light of Freedom: War and Emancipation in the Heart of America," and works on his public radio program "BackStory with the American History Guys."

The list includes chairing the board of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond. The museum has the potential to become "the main reason people come to our city," Ayers said.

"For us to make permanent what we were able to accomplish during the sesquicentennial is a very exciting possibility - that we would be the place in the country that you would come to see the American Civil War whole," he said.

Ayers, who was arts and sciences dean at the University of Virginia when he was selected to lead UR in 2007, said he signed on with the understanding that the university should use its "good fortune to create as many opportunities for as many people as we could." The university now pays the full cost for Virginia students with family incomes less than $60,000.

"The fact that we were able to use that good fortune to really open our doors widely to people of all kinds of backgrounds from all around the United States and all over the world, I think is what I'm proudest of," Ayers said.

"You can see that aligns with what I was doing outside of the classroom."


A small moment in life with a big impact

My father became debilitated in his 50s. Once, when I was a beginning professor, I said in passing to him and my mom that I was eager for that semester to be over. He looked at me and quietly said, "Son, don't wish your life away." I've never received better advice.

What sparked your interest in history?

Staying for long stretches of time with my grandparents, who had a farm high in the North Carolina mountains. It took me awhile to figure out that that could be "history," that every family had a history worth knowing.

Favorite book

"Absalom! Absalom!" by William Faulkner. I love it because it captures the essential drama of the American South in a haunting way.

Role model

C. Vann Woodward, the great historian of the South, because he found a way to make history matter in his time and place.

Something that might surprise others

I once spent a summer working on the double Ferris wheel on a carnival, living in my car.

Something you'd like to do

Visit every continent.

Alternate profession or course of study

Being an architect looks very interesting, taking an idea and turning it into something enduring.


Position: professor and president emeritus, University of Richmond

Born/hometown: Jan. 22, 1953; raised in Kingsport, Tenn.

College: University of Tennessee (bachelor's degree), Yale University (doctorate in American Studies)

Family: wife Abby, son Nate, daughter Hannah

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