According to legend, Douglas Southall Freeman saluted the Lee statue as he passed it on his way to work as editor of The Richmond News Leader. Richmond’s black citizens would not make similar gestures.
A biographer of Lee (and Washington) and an acclaimed military historian, Freeman encouraged the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. The theory minimized slavery’s role. Although the elegant Freeman scorned the racially charged rhetoric of Southern fire-eaters, the Lost Cause may have inflicted more damage on race relations than Massive Resistance. Its delusions have proved more enduring.
James Jackson Kilpatrick, Freeman’s successor, thundered to a receptive audience. African-Americans were on the receiving end. Freeman’s voice did not sing liberation to them. The Lee statue and other Confederate monuments honored not only those who fought to perpetuate slavery but those who opposed truth and reconciliation when truth and reconciliation would have made a timely material and spiritual difference. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should have been unnecessary. Chances went with the wind.
Allen Guelzo ranks among the era’s top historians of the Civil War. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, he spoke of the divisions that afflict politics today and the divisions that led to the great rupture. He sees our times as the most divisive since the eve of the Civil War but does not believe formal conflict will erupt.
Slavery may have been the overriding issue then, but geography made secession possible. The slave states were contiguous. If they had been scattered and separated by free states, they would not have left the Union to form a new nation dedicated to the proposition that men are not created equal.
Today’s elections may follow geographical patterns, but the differences are more evenly spread that in yesteryear. The comfort may be small, but it comforts nevertheless. Guelzo visited the Editorial offices of The Times-Dispatch upon winning the Gilder Lehrman Prize for writings about Lincoln.
Stillness may have fallen at Appomattox, yet the aftermath of the war prolonged the contention. Reunion occurred; reconciliation did not. The former states of the Confederacy fought Reconstruction. When the North threw in the towel, they reimposed racial supremacy.
Thanks in part to the Lost Cause delusion, Virginia prided itself on being different from, say, Alabama, Mississippi, and the states of the Deep South. Virginia outlawed lynching; for the most part it rejected chest-thumping demagogues. The Old Dominion lacked counterparts to Theodore Bilbo, James K. Vardaman, Gene Talmadge, Lester Maddox, Oval Faubus or George Wallace. William Tuck, a Byrd Organization stalwart, was flamboyant and dedicated to a society riven by race. He did not spew Wallace-like bile.
Vulgarity was not the Virginia way.
Style should not deceive. Virginia still resisted massively. A second-class citizen was a second-class citizen whether he lived in Richmond or Montgomery. Virginia’s approach to eugenics appealed to the Nazis.
In “Five Miles Away, a World Apart,” James Ryan compares Henrico’s Douglas Freeman High School and Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson High School. When examining educational disparity, he explains that the so-called freedom-of-choice plans were cruel farces to avoid, delay, or minimize desegregation. These are the chapters the flag-wavers would like to erase from the state’s history. The ghost of Jim Crow stalks an uncomprehending land.
Racism afflicts North as well as South. Lincoln himself considered the North complicit in a national crime. His Second Inaugural remains the most astonishing — and humble — “victory” speech in human history.
Mayor Levar Stoney has appointed a commission to study ways to add context to Richmond’s trove of Confederate references. The panel is composed of distinguished individuals who can be counted on to engage in civil discourse.
Richmond has an opportunity to earn a reputation as a community that addressed the totality of its past. During an interview in the 1930s, a former slave in Danville described the history of slavery and race to an African-American writer with the Works Progress Administration as “the half that has never been told.” The telling has improved since, yet a sanitized view of slavery and its aftermath persists. The Stoney commission’s mandate is to further the healing.
It can draw inspiration from Virginia institutions. Mount Vernon, for example, does not ignore slavery’s central role at the plantation synonymous with George Washington. Colonial Williamsburg does not slight slavery, either. The Virginia Historical Society and the Library of Virginia leave no Virginia story untouched.
The American Civil War Museum focuses on Confederacy, Union and Freedom — the last perspective often has received short shrift. Christy Coleman, the museum’s CEO, is chair of the Stoney commission. Her background and her record justify confidence. Context does not discredit the nation whose birth patriots celebrated on the Fourth. It is time to tell the whole.