Lee, a 47-year-old historian and descendant of slaves, has long known that blacks played a far more extensive role in the decisive 1864 Union victory. So when her employer, the Atlanta History Center, announced five years ago that it would become the latest steward of the Cyclorama, she was ambivalent. She wondered why a museum intent on reaching more-diverse audiences would raise $35 million to preserve a painting created by and for white people.
“I felt a lot of resources were being devoted to the process of Civil War navel-gazing when there were other questions Atlanta needed space to explore,” says Lee, the center’s vice president of historical interpretation and community partnerships. But her friend Leslie Harris, then a history professor at Emory University, suggested that the artwork offered a rare opportunity. The South was just entering the early days of a revived debate over whether to reframe or remove vestiges of the Confederacy. Lee realized that it was possible to change the perception of a relic that thousands of schoolchildren visit annually. “I wanted to get it right,” Lee said, “not just with the painting, but the surrounding experience that would help people understand the process of historical mythmaking.”
Lee thus joined a small, subversive chapter of black Atlanta leaders who for decades had sought to tell a fuller Cyclorama story. The painting, created in 1886 and originally intended for white Northern audiences, helped lionize the Union’s role in ending slavery. But the fad for cycloramas soon faded, and in 1890, Georgia promoter Paul Atkinson, the brother of Confederate soldiers, bought the painting for $2,500. When he reopened the exhibit in Atlanta, he had retouched key details — Confederate captives had become Union — and falsely rebranded the experience “the only Confederate victory ever painted.” A generation removed from the battlefield, white Southerners bought into a marketing ploy that pushed the Lost Cause narrative. (Atkinson’s revisions were corrected in the 1930s.)
By 1974, Atlanta was a majority-black city, and taxpayers had soured on sinking public money into the anachronistic artifact. But Maynard Jackson, the city’s first black mayor, recognized the Battle of Atlanta’s role in liberating his ancestors. Facing backlash from constituents, he orchestrated an $11 million effort to restore the painting and the city-owned museum that housed it.
“Maynard recognized the Cyclorama not for what it was at the time, but for what it could be,” says his widow, Valerie Jackson. “He recognized it could be an educational piece using art, history and imagination — as well as facts — to re-create a significant turning point of Atlanta and of the nation.”
The Cyclorama museum slowly began to tell a new story of old Atlanta. African American tour guides noted historical inaccuracies about black people on the battlefield. Camille Russell Love, an arts official who oversaw the Cyclorama, diversified the museum’s programming to center it more on the 19th-century black experience, and to tie that experience to Atlanta’s civil rights legacy.
But the painting deteriorated again, and in the wake of the Great Recession, the city couldn’t fund another restoration. That’s when the Atlanta History Center stepped in with an offer to house the artwork.
Relocating the five-ton painting, the size of nearly 27 billboards, was no small feat. But for Lee, a greater challenge lay ahead. She thought that beyond an exhibit of images and artifacts, the AHC should incorporate overlooked voices deconstructing the myths baked into the Cyclorama.
She contacted experts like Harris and Frank Smith, a Georgia native who oversees Washington’s African American Civil War Museum. Both recommended that the AHC emphasize the roles black people played in securing their liberation.
Over the past year, as preservationists restored the work, Lee helped craft the fuller story of the way painters, promoters and politicians had continually reshaped history on the canvas. In the exhibit “Cyclorama: The Big Picture,” visitors now learn how African Americans were erased from the story of the battle, with an interactive guide noting plainly that hundreds of black stretcher-bearers on the battlefield in July 1864 are missing from the panorama. After climbing up to a viewing platform, they see a 12-minute film projected on the Cyclorama, featuring the multivoiced narrative — from the German artists who painted it, to Atkinson and his revisions, to Jackson himself — that Lee envisioned.
“It’s not going to work for you if you treat this as a ‘choose your own adventure’ to reaffirm your perceptions,” Lee said. “It’s going to take work to examine if the Lost Cause mythology is part of your miseducation. It’s going to take work to be confronted with difficult, hurtful images of the African American past. I hope people will do the work, to not just stand in front of the painting and obsess about one soldier or find their ancestors.”
AHC officials believe that the more complicated Cyclorama story will draw a wider range of visitors to a museum that, tucked in the heart of the affluent Buckhead neighborhood, long catered to white audiences. Lee hopes that her sons, ages 7 and 12, will learn a more-honest truth when their time comes to see one of Atlanta’s oldest artifacts.
“I want them to find narratives that help them understand how they are a part of this history, and to help understand the perspectives of other people,” she says. “I want them to hear that with respect and empathy — and for them, as young African American people, to expect the same.”
Max Blau is a writer in Atlanta.