Caption: Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum, which is headquartered at the site of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond.
Christy Coleman spends a lot of time among artifacts of the Civil War, and two that touch her deeply are a pair of tattered Confederate battle flags. This seems odd for an African American woman, until she explains.
One banner has a single word stitched on it: Home. The white material of the flag, it turns out, was cut from a wedding dress. The other flag is a traditional Stars and Bars, like you’d see on a T-shirt or shot glass. But this one was captured at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg by United States Colored Troops.
Both relics hint at deeper human stories, and that’s where Coleman finds meaning in her job as chief executive of the American Civil War Museum, an institution created from the ruins of this city’s Confederate ironworks.
As the nation wrestles with its heritage of racial discrimination, and as the symbols of the Civil War show fresh power to divide, no place has a deeper stake than Richmond — a majority-black city where Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson still cast long shadows. And no one is more on the spot to figure it all out than Coleman.“To have someone, a woman, who’s African American, at one of the most important museums in the former capital of the Confederacy — you can’t underestimate how important that is,” said Kevin Levin, a Civil War historian. “She really stands out.”
Coleman is using that position to look for a new way to tell the story of the Civil War, a conflict so easy to render in stereotypes. With a major expansion of the museum underway, her goal is to show the conflict from multiple points of view — not just North and South, but through the eyes of women, Native Americans, enslaved blacks, immigrants. If you can change perspectives, the thinking goes, issues begin to look different. Assumptions waver.
That premise will be put to the test long before the expanded museum opens later this year. Coleman is helping lead a commission appointed by Richmond’s mayor to recommend what to do with five enormous statues of Confederate leaders along the city’s grandest residential boulevard, Monument Avenue.
Those statues are as fundamental to Richmond’s identity as Thomas Jefferson’s Capitol building. Coleman is conscious of the violence that has ripped other communities, such as nearby Charlottesville, over the same issue. But it’s not the first time she has confronted the nation’s most troubling legacy in a controversial and public way.“America’s reckoning with her sin and her trauma,” Coleman said, “is really what we’ve got to get to.”
Coleman, 53, grew up in Williamsburg, in the workaday city behind Ye Olde Colonial Facade. Her neighborhood and church were filled with the tradespeople who groomed the gardens, sheared the sheep or ran the printing press in the historic area. Most of the costumed interpreters didn’t look like Coleman, despite the fact that in Colonial times more than half the residents of Williamsburg were of African descent.
But she was captivated by them and won an audition for a reenactor role when she was only 17. The other historic interpreters worried about her. “They were preserving trades,” she said. “I was portraying an enslaved person.”
She saw something horrible overcome visitors who encountered her in that role. The modern veneer slipped aside and out came racial epithets or crude sexual comments. As a young woman, she struggled to process those situations. But she stuck with it, the thrill of giving voice to the voiceless more powerful than the revulsion. By the mid 1990s, after starting at William & Mary and graduating from Hampton University, Coleman became Colonial Williamsburg’s director for public history. She oversaw all of the historical interpreters.
One of her first big events was an annual market day, reenacting the way Colonial Virginians auctioned cattle and land. A staffer pointed out the obvious: The real market would have sold slaves, too.Coleman decided it was time to do something radical. She took a plan to upper management to stage a live slave auction. And she would be one of those on the sale block.The idea touched off a national debate. “Black and white folks thought that . . . it was going to stir up stuff that didn’t need to be stirred up in America,” Coleman said.
A massive crowd and international media showed up. Plainclothes police stood among the onlookers, just in case. And Coleman and three other African Americans let themselves be sold to the highest bidders.
Today, that event is viewed as a landmark success in the modern retelling of American history. After generations of avoiding the topic, other major institutions — such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier — now confront enslavement as a major component of their interpretation.
But it exacted a heavy price on Coleman. The emotional stress brought on panic attacks that stuck with her through years of therapy.
She never repeated the auction. A few years later, she was wooed to Detroit to run the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Nearly a decade into that job, Coleman was married and had two small children and wanted to slow things down a bit. She got word of a small museum back home in Virginia that was looking for a shake-up. Richmond long portrayed its past in a one-sided way. After the Civil War, widows and wives of Confederate veterans gathered memorabilia and displayed it in the old Confederate White House. From that collection, arguably the most extensive of its kind anywhere, grew the Museum of the Confederacy.
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