By Johnnie L. Roberts
Special from the Richmond Free Press
(TriceEdneyWire.com) – The Clarks, who were slaves rooted in Tennessee, outlasted brutal bondage, fled the wrath of White supremacy shortly after Emancipation and became founding settlers of Eatonville, Fla., one of the country’s earliest self-governing Black municipalities.
The Clarks’ experience, like that of many enslaved individuals, shows “their incredible resilience, resolve and a certain dignity” in the face of unspeakable inhumanity, says Christy Coleman, chief executive officer of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, one of the most authoritative museums on the nation’s ugliest chapter.
Had the Clarks been able to look into the future as Coleman is able to see the past, they likely would have considered Coleman, a Clark descendant, to be incredible, too. Ensconced in the cradle of the former Confederacy, Coleman, 54, presides over a Downtown cultural institution and the Monument Avenue Commission civic panel seeking to advance a broadened and inclusive meaning of the war and its aftermath.
Quietly marking her 10-year anniversary at the museum, the public historian has been asserting the perspective of, among others, slaves and their immediate descendants into or alongside whitewashed narratives of the Confederacy, Civil War, Emancipation and Reconstruction. As a result, the history of that anguished era is gaining new dimensions that now increasingly incorporate the arc of not only the Clarks’ experience but of every slave.
Aside from her duties at the museum, Coleman also presides in the shadow of an imminent and momentous decision on the fate of Richmond’s monuments to the Confederacy. Despite its tragic overshadowing by a racist murder during a rally of neo-Confederates and White supremacists last August in Charlottesville, Richmond, the capital of the former Confederacy, is where America’s most far-reaching fault line over race, history and heritage runs.
It runs deepest along iconic Monument Avenue, home to five imposing statues of Confederates, including its military mastermind Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, the Confederacy’s president. Coleman is guiding the Monument Avenue Commission with a co-chairman. Mayor Levar M. Stoney, who appointed the 10-person commission last summer, charged it to gather public comment to boil down into recommendations for the monuments’ disposition.
Ms. Coleman and her colleagues will be culling options for possibly exiling the monuments or letting them stay put, but depicting their darkest sides, including the misery of chattel slavery. The commission expects to report to Mayor Stoney before the end of May, which would nearly overlap with Virginia’s Confederate Memorial Day — May 28 — honoring the war dead.
The coincidence is said to have some civic leaders, Richmond officials and others worried that Monument Avenue could become a holiday gathering point for extremists. A decision on the statues by Mayor Stoney and Richmond City Council is likely to come during the summer.
Legal showdowns, the Virginia General Assembly and even the federal government could have a decisive say, ultimately.
“Christy is independently minded, fact-oriented and direct,” says Mayor Stoney, who introduced himself after she impressed him with a public speech a few years ago. “She has the ability to also listen without any sort of partisan color and just take it all in.”
Those traits are evident in Coleman’s mother, Liz Montgomery. In the early 1970s after a brief stay in Washington, the young and growing family of Florida transplants settled in Williamsburg, the only African-American household on their street. The next-door neighbor proudly flew a Confederate flag.
“I remember very well,” says Ms. Coleman, who was 7 or 8 at the time. “I knew what it meant.” Yet, Ms. Coleman’s mother and the woman of the home next-door became good friends. “She had the right to put the flag in her yard,” Montgomery says. The women “talked about her history and my history,” Montgomery recalls. “Her interpretation and mine were a little different. But the loyalty lines were very much the same for what we stood for.”
Drawn to theater arts while attending the College of William & Mary before earning degrees in museum management at Hampton University, Coleman was propelled to worldwide public notice because of a provocative interpretation in 1994. She cast herself to be sold in a re-enactment of a public slave auction, which she produced at Colonial Williamsburg.
So fierce was on-scene protest by the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and others that plain clothes police or security mixed in with the crowds. Undaunted, Coleman, waded into the crowd. An eyewitness that day was Gregg Kimball, now Ms. Coleman’s Monument Avenue Commission co-chairman and a top official at the Library of Virginia.
“‘This (the auction re-enactment) is exactly what would have happened; why shouldn’t we show this part of the legacy?’” Dr. Kimball remembers Coleman explaining to the protesters.
The explosive passions around the monuments issue is reminiscent of the slave auction, but more intense. Because of that experience and others since, Coleman “has always got a clear head, and is wonderful at managing the public conversation,” Dr. Kimball says. Before Ms. Coleman became the most visible face of public historians proselytizing for updated Civil War history, the fan base for and study of the field was the domain largely of White men.
“Very few women have leadership role in big museums with annual budgets of $10 million to $15 million,” Coleman notes. By her account, Coleman encounters too many sexist microaggressions to swat them all — for example, men interrupting her, the CEO, when she has the floor. Occasionally, a man must be put in “check” robustly, she says.
Once, while advising “a major museum” out of “an ugly mess,” she recalls, the troubled CEO began pressing her to quit the American Civil War Museum and come work as his underling. The overture was insulting, coming from a man who had had to enlist her help from the outside.
“The thing is, I would be coming for your job,” Coleman says she replied. “Women aren’t invited to the table. They’ll bring us in to fix their stuff. But give us the reins? No.”
Besides, Coleman, who is a wife and mother of two daughters, is happy with her conscious lifestyle choice of heading the small, groundbreaking American Civil War Museum. She has the honor of being the rare woman at not just one table in her field, but two – counting the Monument Avenue Commission. Occupying the lead seat in both, she is determined to continue broadening the voices and vantage points on history.