Richmond, a City with Monumental Problems

For the second stop of our series “Confederate Monuments and Memory”, Margaret Strolle ’18, guides us through the tensions of space and identity in Richmond, VA, the former capital of the Confederacy. Her investigation focuses on the historical development of Richmond’s Monument Avenue, a purposefully planned space where memories of a ‘heroic past’ could be eternally etched. Margaret also discusses the contemporary impacts of the space as the community debates the future of Monument Avenue.  

In mid-August, the eyes of the nation were focused on Charlottesville, Virginia after an “alt-right” rally and counterprotests concerning the removal of that city’s statue of Robert E. Lee, turned murderous when a car, driven by rally participant James Fields, fatally struck counter-protester Heather Heyer and wounded others. This event dramatically escalated the debate over what to do with Confederate Monuments in cities across the south, including in Richmond, the capital of Virginia and former capital of the Confederacy. Richmond is a city that for many decades proudly celebrated its Confederate heritage. In recent years, as the city government and tourism agencies pivot to celebrate itself as a culturally important and multicultural city, the numerous physical vestiges of the Confederacy pose a problem. Viewed as backward and racist by the black population and others, physical reminders of the Confederacy have ardent defenders in neo-Confederate groups. Even before the events of Charlottesville, one site particular drew controversy. Monument Avenue, described “as the South’s grandest commemorative precinct dedicated to the heroes of the Confederacy, the avenue itself is a monumental urban space, a mile and a half long and fully 180 feet wide between building lines, with a tree-lined mall down its center,” was the subject of debate and a city commission.[1] Presently, there seems to be a pause in the debate, which allows for some time to recount the history of the avenue and speculate on what its future may be.

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The beginning of Monument Avenue was a mix of hero worship and the desire for real estate development and social. In the late 1880s, the heirs of a newly wealthy family, proposed their father’s estate as a location for both a high-end neighborhood and place for a statue to honor the very beloved son of Virginia, Robert E. Lee. The offer was accepted, and in 1890, the city erected a massive statue of Robert E. Lee, to great acclaim. A decade later, mansions of new Richmond elites started lining the boulevard. As this was in the Jim Crow era, only certain persons were allowed to build on the street. Christian whites were the largest group of the property owner, and Jewish citizens of Richmond were a not insignificant percentage making up 30% of property owners at the time.[2] Black Richmonders could not rent or own land under any circumstances, and could only live as domestics to a white family. Several other statues joined Lee’s in the early decades of the twentieth century: J.E.B Stuart and Jefferson Davis in 1907, Stonewall Jackson in 1919, and Matthew Fontaine Maury in 1929. Monument Avenue was not just vailed for its statues and homes, it had a “dual character as both an exclusive neighborhood and Richmond’s-even the South’s- primary theater of public ritual,” and was home to parades and other festivities.[3] After much debate and controversy, the sixth and last statue, depicting African tennis player Arthur Ashe was added at the end of the avenue in 1996.

Outside of Confederate worship circles, Monument Avenue has won praise for its aesthetics as a “planned neighborhood” and grand boulevard. The neighborhood and Jackson Ward, a predominately black neighborhood, are two National Historic Landmark neighborhoods in Richmond. These days, it is not so much the “aesthetic appeal” of the Avenue that concerns people but figures it depicts. As Richmond strives to be an up and coming twenty-first-century city, the statues represent a nineteenth and twentieth century past of slavery and Jim Crow.  Continuing debates over Monument Avenue led the city’s black mayor, Levar Stoney to form a commission to study possibilities for the future of the site with an initial focus on adding context, or signage, to the statues. Established in June, the commission’s members included Civil War historian Edward Ayers and Christy Coleman, CEO of Richmond’s American Civil War Museum. The commission held their first public meeting on Wednesday, August 9th, three days before Charlottesville. The meeting proved contentious and featured a predominately white audience. The timing of the event and the demographic turnout occurred for several reasons: whites had more leisure time to attend the hearing held on a weekday evening, Confederate heritage groups spread information about the hearing. Perhaps African-Americans in Richmond did not feel the event was worth their time since removing the statues was not an option at the time. Charlottesville would change that.

After the events in Charlottesville, Mayor Stoney stated that the commission would now be considering the removal of the statues. A second public hearing, scheduled for September 13th was postponed until November 14th. Undoubtedly, it will prove to be equally contentious, if not more so than the August event. As the city’s newspaper the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted: “Richmond is a city of monuments.” It concedes that “some monuments are no longer appropriate,” singling out the Jefferson Davis statue as one that should go, but arguing that the honorable Lee statue should stay.[4] Eventually, the commission will present its findings and recommendations, and we may get a clearer idea of the future of these statues. Since a 1997 state law protects the statues, and the Lee statue is on state land, outright removal seems unlikely as the state legislature is Republican. Perhaps signage will be added, or perhaps some statues might be removed, such as the one of Jefferson Davis, who was never truly popular as the Confederate president. (As a tour guide once told me at the White House of the Confederacy, a lot of visitors think that Robert E. Lee was the president of the Confederacy.) The statues’ immense size would require a sizeable outdoor site for relocation. Devotees of the Lost Cause narrative are unlikely to let the issue be settled quickly. At this point, it all remains up in the air.

Monument Avenue, much like the Confederacy, slavery and Jim Crow, is an undeniable part of Richmond’s past and legacy. The question the city faces is, does the boulevard need to be intact and dominating the landscape to be present in the city’s history. While the broader debate over Confederate monuments is a part of the national dialogue, Richmond’s discussion on its monuments will hopefully be decided by its citizens, white, black and others. In contrast to Monument Avenue’s past, its future must be a truly community decision.

 

For Further Information

Monument Avenue Commision Website:https://www.monumentavenuecommission.org/#home-section

American Civil War Museum’s Monument Avenue Website: https://onmonumentave.com/

[1] Kathy Edwards and Esme Howard, “Monument Avenue: The Architecture of Consensus in the New South, 1890-1930,” in Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture Vol. 6 (1997): 92.

[2] Ibid., 102.

[3] Ibid., 99.

[4] Editorial Board, “What next for Monument Avenue?” Richmond Times-Dispatch, published September 19th, 2017, accessed October 9th, 2017. http://www.richmond.com/opinion/our-opinion/editorial-what-next-for-monument-avenue/article_775a8d97-55cb-5921-b299-ada5d9fb9f63.html

All photo credits go to Margaret Strolle

 

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The “IT” of the “Information Wanted” Project

 Written by Margaret Strolle, Karyna  Hylvynska and Chris Byrd

About six weeks ago, the Monday edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story entitled “Families torn apart by slavery sought lost loved ones in newly archived ads.” It covered a joint project between Margaret Jerrido of the Mother Bethel AME Church and Villanova History Department’s own Dr. Judith Giesberg, that seeks to provide a free database of “Information Wanted”Ads. “Information Wanted” Ads are ads that freed slaves placed in newspapers before, during, and after the Civil War, requesting information on family or friends that the searcher had not seen for many years, usually owing to one of the parties being sold or one running away. This project has been a multistep and sobering experience. Thanks to the article and a subsequent NPR interview, The “Information Wanted” project is becoming very well known. It has taken a team of people to bring it this far, and this article focuses on the technical contributions of volunteers and graduate assistants that make this project possibly.

I (Margaret Strolle) was the first graduate assistant to join the project in Fall 2016, followed later by Chris Byrd that same semester, and by Karyna Hlyvynska and Bonnie Loden this semester. As graduate students, our main jobs are divided into locating and then uploading images of ads. To locate most of the ads, we have to turn to an older technology, microfilm and a microfilm reader. Feeding the microfilm through the two remaining microfilm machines at Falvey, we look for sections that would contain ads. For much of the early days of the project, we focused on Mother Bethel’s The Christian Recorder, which placed many of its ads under a column or titles specifically called “information wanted.” However, they could also be placed under the heading of “Notice.” Once located, the Ads were scanned using the ImageScan program, a program so old it prompts you to save on a floppy disk. Suffice to say, in 2016 and 2017, we save them on USBs. Once a day’s shift at the microfilm machine is completed, it is time to upload them to the website.

The Process of Uploading

Before uploading, the scanned images have to be cropped and, sometimes, go through a Photoshop filter to look clearer. We upload them on our website and assign them a title, usually the name of a person who sent the ad to the newspaper. We then add a short description of the ad (for instance, “John Walker is looking for his wife Peggie”), the name and the date of the newspaper, and list ourselves as contributors. Sometimes the process is really tricky: the newspapers are old, their pages are blurred, torn apart, or darkened by age, the copies might be of low quality. It becomes hard to decipher the names. As time passed, we started discovering that the same person would have their ad posted in multiple issues of the same newspaper over and over again. The text of these ads would be absolutely identical. Perhaps such people paid regularly to the editor to have their ad posted in each issue. It did not make much sense for us to publish multiple copies of the same ad. Thus, the process of uploading became even more complicated: before putting an ad on the website, we had to make sure the same ad had not already been posted. It did slow down the whole process, which is one of the reasons new ads do not appear often on the website.

This is how an uploaded ad looks:

Transcription

The process of transcribing the ads, while fairly straightforward, bears elaborating upon, if only to call attention to its importance in making the text of the ads available for others to search within.  The first step is to register as a user on the informationwanted.org site, which can be accomplished in as little time as it takes one to type in a username, display name, password, and email address and then, of course, to prove that one is human (and not perhaps a clandestine microwave). From there, step two is to register again as a user for MyWiki and the Scripto transcription software. This differs from registering as just a site user in that a potential transcriber must provide their name, another username (though it can be the same as the one used for the regular site), some sort of group affiliation (though one can simply put “unaffiliated”), their email, and their zip code. If one is so inclined, she or he can also provide their reason for wanting to transcribe said ads, but this is not required. After this is completed, the MyWiki administrator will put in the user-provided information and send the new transcriber a temporary password and instructions for how to get started transcribing — the most important one being to make sure to verify one’s email on the MyWiki site. (The time from registering on the MyWiki site to being approved and receiving a password vary slightly depending on if the book the administrator is reading is any good or if he’s baking something.) Once a user is registered in the appropriate places, the time for actual transcribing has almost arrived as they should first study and etch upon their souls the guidelines provided on the informationwanted.org site for proper transcription. These guidelines are thankfully relatively simple: Transcribe the ad exactly as it appears, punctuation and misspellings and all; do not guess if one cannot read a word but instead write “[undecipherable]” where the said word appears in the ad; leave any comments that one might have in an email to the editors of the site; and finally, do not use the “Tab” button for reasons too gruesome to list here. The process of actual transcription is simply to read the ad and re-type what it says into a text box, click submit, and then admire one’s work. Once the ad has been transcribed, its full text (such as places, names, dates, or certain words and phrases) can then be searched by anyone looking for a particular piece of information contained within an ad on the site.

Potential Uses

There are many potential uses for this site. It can be used by genealogists to search for ancestors and/or relatives of ancestors that that were separated by slavery. Teachers at all levels  may also find this site useful as a database of primary sources for African American history in the era of Reconstruction. Historians may also find it useful for the same reasons. The possibilities are manifold. It is simply our job to upload these ads to our free database so that the larger online community may decide how best to use and and learn from them.

This has been an overview of the process of posting these ads. To explore the website please follow this link: http://www.informationwanted.org/ .

Museum Matters: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

Museum Matters: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

On Friday, March 3rd, I was lucky enough to get a same-day online ticket for the newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (MHAAC) in Washington, DC. Established by an Act of Congress in 2003, the museum opened its doors in 2016, and has been drawing large crowds who are eager to tour the museum. Currently, the museum is “sold out” for individuals- advanced timed tickets are free, but necessary to enter the building- through June, so if one wants to visit, they must either come with a large group of 10 +, obtain one of the limited number of online same day passes that go on “sale” at 6:30am (!) or wait in line for the limited number of individual tickets handed out on site at 1pm on weekdays. So, while it is not impossible to visit the museum, it requires advanced planning.

NMAAHC is located on the north side of National Mall, towards the Washington Monument. On a smaller plot of land then other museums on the mall, NMAAHC is more vertically orientated. The museum exterior features lattice ironwork and is influenced by classical, Yoruba, and African American design. (See image below) The museum’s ground/street level floor serves as a welcome center, featuring an information desk, the gift shop and lockers for oversize bags. Upon walking in I noticed, that while the crowd was a slight majority African-American, there was still plenty of other groups represented. This floor also serves as a division between the museum’s aboveground and belowground galleries.

The museum’s history galleries are underground and to reach them you first to descend to the first concourse level, which features the Sweet Home Café and Contemplative Court which I will discuss later in the entry. (Interestingly, the history galleries are named for D.C. philanthropist David Rubenstein, who was a major donor, but is Caucasian. Other galleries bear the name of corporate donors, as do many galleries in museums, but I suppose there just seems something off to me, about having galleries dedicated to the struggles of African-Americans named for a white billionaire, no matter how upstanding he is.) You stand in a hallway lined with pictures of moment from African American history, before entering a large elevator that takes you down to the bottom of the museum where the actual exhibits start. As the elevator descends, the dates move backward from Present to 1400s, informing the audience that they are figuratively going back in time.

The first gallery is “Slavery and Freedom: 1400-1877.” The exhibits begin with a discussion African and European around 1400s before transitioning into the start of the slave trade and its relationship to the colonial experience. The full geographic extent of slavery is highlight as the gallery highlights the experiences of the enslaved in both north and south. Additionally, there is a wall that details the lengths of time that various participated in the slave trade. The focus shifts from the colonial to national experience in the section entitles “The Paradox of Liberty,” which charts the contrast between republican ideas and the practice of slavery. One of the most interesting sections of this exhibit is a display box labeled “Generations of Enslavement,” which features shackles hanging over a cradle. A simple, but profound arrangement. The last few rooms of the museum are dedicated to the Civil War and emancipation which help to transition to the next gallery. Before leaving this level, visitors can sit in a reflection room and record their thoughts on the exhibit. This feature is also included on the other two floors.

Climbing up the ramp to level C2, visitors encounter a video giving an overview of Reconstruction, which serves as a segway to the next floors topic, “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation, 1876-1968.” This gallery features many larger objects, including a plane flown by one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a segregated train car, and a guard tower from Louisiana’s Angola Prison. However, smaller objects do leave and impact as well. In a small room, off the side of the main gallery, Emmitt Till’s original casket stands as a reminder of how even the young were not safe from the violence of racism. One of the main gallery’s most interesting features, is an interactive lunch counter that poses questions to visitors concerning the experiences of civil rights activists, and asks how they would react in those situations. The galleries show the degradation and violence that were rampant for African Americans, but also their strength in combating these offenses. This sets the stage for the mainly post-Civil Rights Era galleries.

The final history gallery, on level C3, is “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.” This gallery connects the waning years of the Civil Rights Era, with the movements and events that came after. While this gallery does highlight many gains of the communities, it also addresses ongoing problems such as in the “City and Suburbs” room, which notes how many African-Americans still live in urban areas, much of which are economically struggling. A small room and one of the last two video screens are dedicated to the election and presidency of Barack Obama, initially giving a sense of a triumphant ending. However, the last video screen includes images from Ferguson and Baltimore, showing that while there has been significant progress, the African American community still faces struggles because of slavery and segregation.

Returning to the main concourse, the visitor is centrally located for that level’s other main attractions. There is the Oprah Winfrey Theater, named for another major donor. There’s also the Contemplative Court, a room where visitors can sit on stone benches surrounding a central pool of water supplied by a “ceiling fountain.” The walls also each feature quotes. The main space on this floor, however, is the Sweet Home Café, which serves as the cafeteria, but also highlights the importance of African American through both its menu and wall art.

The remaining galleries are aboveground. I began from the top (4th) floor on my visit so the floors will be discussed in top down order. The top floor contains the culture galleries, which explore the manifold contributions of African-Americans to American Pop Culture. A particular focus is the African-American musical experience. On the third floor are the community galleries, which are like the history galleries, but I supposed different enough that they are in a separate space. Topics covered included the African American experience in various American cities and neighborhoods, activist efforts, participation in professional sports, and the military experience of African Americans. The second floor is the “Explore More!” floor, which includes a family history research center, and more interactive experiences for children and adults.

NMAAHC is a vertical expansive, and at times, emotionally/mentally heavy. Nonetheless, it is very engaging and informative museum. While I do believe that the museum will have the highest emotional resonance with African-Americans, all Americans can learn from the museum. I highly recommend it as must-see and must-learn about on anyone’s next visit to DC.