An Oct. 7 Style article did not include the current title of Raymond H. Boone of Richmond. He is the editor and publisher of the Richmond Free Press.
The Blue and Gray and Black
Saturday, October 7, 2006
RICHMOND In some parts of the country, the Civil War is still being fought.
And perhaps nowhere are the aftershocks and viewpoints as evident as in Richmond, where a new museum is attempting to tell the history of the war from three angles. That would be: the Union, the African American and the Confederate.
The American Civil War Center, which opens today, argues that each of the three had distinct ideas about freedom -- and few would challenge that. Its inaugural 10,000-square-foot exhibition, "In the Cause of Liberty," suggests that in this complicated story there were more lines crossed than the military ones. Each side was passionate. Each found justification for its goals in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Each suffered many casualties.
"There are three big ideas -- the War for Home, the War for Union and the War for Freedom. Some of these concepts bumped into one another, creating more tensions. What we are trying to do is model a discussion, rather than shouting about the points of view," says H. Alexander Wise Jr., the museum president who is a former state historical preservation officer for Virginia and the descendant of a Confederate general. The museum is run by a private foundation based in Richmond.
The reaction of African Americans to the concepts ranges from outrage to open-mindedness.
"This is ridiculous. Number one, it puts villains on the same plane as American heroes, Lincoln and Douglass," says Raymond Boone, former editor of the Richmond Afro-American newspaper. "When you start celebrating the Confederacy, you are talking about terrorists. It is normal to celebrate a just cause. It is abnormal to celebrate a losing and unjust cause."
John Fleming, the vice president for museums of the Cincinnati Museum Center and the president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, was recruited as an adviser. He praises the center for putting the African American story on center stage and says he learned a lot about the Confederacy. "I never came to agree with their goals for war because their goals would have kept black people in slavery. I came to understand why they fought for home and liberty, as they understood it. That was a big jump on my part," he says.
These views reflected the uphill battle of winning over people in Richmond to the project. And some, seeing the equal treatment of the three groups, might think it's a little too fair.
"The Civil War is still a hot-button issue and the center wants to address the issues candidly," said James M. McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian. He is an adviser to the museum and participated in several early meetings with local residents. "The black community is traditionally suspicious about the way Civil War history has been presented in the South. It's so often romanticized with Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee," McPherson says. "This is a bold departure, and I felt most strongly about being open, not using any coded language to talk about slavery and the war aims."
Casting light on all sides of the story is a difficult task, but one that was endorsed by the advising historians.
"What I hope is that it opens the eyes of people who are interested in the Civil War and who approach it from one of the three stories and then engage their interests on the other two sides. I hope it will get African Americans of the present day to take a fresh look at the Civil War in a way that engages them and gets rid of the notion that this was done for us, or to us," says Charles B. Dew, a historian at Williams College.
William J. Cooper Jr., a historian at Louisiana State University who has written extensively about the South and slavery, was looking for honesty in the story, too. "We are not going to camouflage the fact that the North didn't start doing anything about slavery until the war. Everybody thought they were fighting for liberty," says Cooper. They just had different ideas about what liberty was.