By Peter Galuszka
An outside view is always welcome, especially in these incredible days when a lot of Southern mythology is being turned on its head.
Richmond is a great locus for the examination given its tortured history. The former Capital of the Confederacy (more by accident than anything else) is a true crucible.
The Boston Globe is running a series of articles from cities across the country examining how Americans citizens view their identities and how they are reacting to the fast-moving examination of slavery, the Civil War and the debates over its twisted symbols, especially the Confederate flag.
Globe reporter Michael Karnish starts with Ana Edwards, an African-American Richmonder, as she stands near the Jefferson Davis Monument on the city’s famed Monument Avenue packed with Confederate generals, Arthur Ashe and an aviator.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who led the insurrection against the United States, is praised as backing “Constitutional Principles” and “Defender of States Rights” (strangely similar to the conservative reaction to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on gay marriage).
Nowhere is it inscribed about what the war was all about – slavery.
You might go down to Shockoe Bottom for that. It was once the second busiest slave trading market in the country. There’s a site for an old gallows, a “Burial Ground for Negroes.” Lumpkin’s Jail. Ghosts of about 350,000 slaves “sent downriver from Richmond over a 35-year period before the Civil War.
One of them was Anthony Burns, 19, who escaped to Boston in 1853 but was arrested under a fugitive law and after lots of public demonstrations, was returned to Richmond with federal troops at the ready. He ended up in Lumpkin’s Jail.
There’s not a lot in Richmond to remind about slavery. In fact, when one drives north across the James River on Interstate 95, the Virginia Holocaust Museum makes a bigger impression even though Virginia had nothing to do with the Nazi Final Solution.
The Globe reporter does a fair job of contrasting Carytown, the chic and artsy shopping district (that goes hand to mouth with the city’s annoying fetish for fancy food and craft beer) with other parts of the city that are chock full of impoverished people. One out of every four Richmonders is officially poor.
Mayor Dwight Jones, an African-American, discusses his plans to eliminate public housing and fill it with mixed-use and mixed-income developments.
The next page to turn will be the UCL World Cycling Championship where 1,000 international cyclists will converge on Richmond for nine days in September. It is expected to draw 450,000 spectators (as the promoters insist they be called). Jones is a big promoter.
But plans are to have the cyclists zip past the 1907-era Confederate generals and Jefferson Davis on the city’s most famous avenue about 16 times before video cameras that will be broadcast globally. What kind of impression will that make? Given Richmond’s enormous and unresolved image problems and insecurity, can it simply and politely avoid facing the past as it has for 150 years and expect everyone else to go along with it?
I wouldn’t expect Mayor Jones to come up with an answer since he has failed to do much to put a slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom, the most appropriate spot for it. Instead, he was pushing some kind of museum along with an expensive project including a minor league baseball stadium and bars and restaurants.
To be sure, I am not completely sure people or newspapers from Boston have a lock on any moral compass. I went to college there for four years in the early 1970s and heard so much self-righteous nonsense that I began to think of myself as a Southerner.
After all, in the fall of 1974, just after I graduated and went back to North Carolina, Boston erupted into racial violence over court-ordered busing to integrate its de facto segregated schools.
In this case, however, the Globe has a good perspective on Richmond. It is a valuable addition to the debate.