Time magazine’s latest issue is devoted entirely to the American South as “the country’s most culturally complex region,” and it features a list of “31 People Changing the South.”
Christy Coleman was surprised to find herself on the list.
She’s more comfortable talking about her mission leading the American Civil War Museum, which has a new $25 million building under construction at Historic Tredegar that is set to open in the spring.
“Our goal from the very beginning of this institute is to tell a complete narrative of the Civil War, to have a holistic view from a variety of narratives,” Coleman said by phone.
According to the article, Coleman was selected because “few subjects are as thorny as the history and meaning of the Civil War. But as CEO of the American Civil War Museum ... Christy Coleman has proved unafraid to wade into the middle of the conversation. As an African-American woman, her very presence in the field is noteworthy, and Coleman has found herself at the museum’s helm during a moment of national reckoning on its subject.”
The new institution brings together the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar and the Museum of the Confederacy to tell the story of the Civil War from all sides: Union and Confederate, soldiers and civilians, women and children, enslaved and free African-Americans.
“I think it’s important to have a variety of voices, not just African-American,” Coleman said. “This war impacted everyone. The fact that I’m a black woman helps me see things that others may not because I ask questions of history. I’m looking for a fullness in the narrative. This conflict, even though it was 150 years ago, has very real and modern ramifications that we deal with constantly.”
She discussed the 13th Amendment, the 14th Amendment and the 15th Amendment, ranging from issues of slavery and birthright to a citizen’s right to vote, as issues that came about during Reconstruction and how they’re still viable today.
“I think people shy away from it [the Civil War] because one narrative often dominated it and the story was rarely complete,” Coleman said.
“The American Civil War Museum is the most important Civil War museum in the nation. And Christy has been as the forefront of that,” said S. Waite Rawls III, the former president and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy who now serves as president of the American Civil War Museum Foundation.
He described Coleman as a eloquent spokeswoman, widely quoted by the press, who believes in “reasoned discourse that embraces the idea that different people can have different opinions.”
Coleman has been with the American Civil War Center for 10 years, five of those as the American Civil War Museum.
Coleman also recently served on Mayor Levar Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission, which consisted of 10 panelists drawn from historians, academicians and City Council members.
The commission, whose report was issued in July, recommended adding context in the form of signage to four of the statues and removing the monument to President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis.
Coleman grew up in Williamsburg. Before joining the American Civil War Museum, she served as the CEO and president of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the nation’s largest African-American museum.
Lisa Sims, executive director of Venture Richmond, has worked with Coleman for several years and described her as a confident leader with a searing intellect who has “helped reframe the narrative and assumptions around conversations about the Civil War.”
Sims added, “Though we may or may not all agree that women on the whole still struggle to gain recognition as leaders, I do think we could agree that an African-American woman who’s steering the direction of the American Civil War Museum is remarkable. And indeed she is.”
An opening date for the new American Civil War Museum will be announced this fall.
Other people on the “31 People Changing the South” list include Virginia delegate Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person to serve in a state legislature, New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis and biracial country singer Kane Brown (who played a sold-out concert at Innsbrook After Hours last week), just to name a few.
Coleman described being featured in Time as “very humbling” and added that “these things don’t happen in a bubble. I’m lucky to work with remarkable people in the community and especially at our institution.”