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An African American leader brings a provocative take to expanded Civil War museum

Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum, which is headquartered at the site of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. Coleman is trying to tell the story of the Civil War in a way to help visitors rethink the conflict.
Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum, which is headquartered at the site of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. Coleman is trying to tell the story of the Civil War in a way to help visitors rethink the conflict. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post)
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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.

In the former capital of the Confederacy, debate over statues is personal and painful

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.”

Giving voice to the voiceless

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.

Merging two perspectives

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.

By the turn of the 21st century, it became harder to raise money for an institution seen as a shrine to the Lost Cause. Across town, a new Civil War museum opened in the old Tredegar Iron Works, which had forged the Confederate arsenal.

It boasted a spectacular location and private money, but only a modest collection of artifacts. The two museums eyed each other. When Tredegar needed a new leader in 2008, it asked the director of the Museum of the Confederacy — a garrulous former banker named Waite Rawls III — to help with interviews. He urged them to hire Coleman.

“She and I hit it off pretty quickly,” Rawls said. “Christy is the consummate museum professional. . . . I’m not. I’m a business guy who’s a very knowledgeable Civil War buff.”

After a few years of collaborating, they took their boards a plan to merge the museums. It was completed in 2013.

Rawls stuck with fundraising as head of the foundation, and Coleman took charge of presenting the history at the museum’s facilities, which now included the White House and Tredegar as well as the Lee surrender site in Appomattox. The combination led to a huge influx of cash, powering a $37 million expansion at Tredegar that when it opens this year will provide a new setting for the big collection.

Some saw the changing museum as a threat. It was now about the Civil War as a whole, instead of the Confederacy. And, of course, Coleman was in charge.

“Mr. Rawls, I think you have done a wrong thing to us,” one man said in a voice mail that Rawls saved on his computer. “I just want to let you know to kiss my ass, you ain’t no good, you need to get the hell out of office!”

A Confederate legacy group launched a social-media crusade to “Stop Christy Coleman from taking our heritage!” Local police warned Coleman to beef up security.

She had encountered this kind of thing before. When the museum displayed a painting of Abraham Lincoln in the ruins of Richmond, for instance, a man came in who had donated numerous artifacts.

He was outraged by the painting and told Coleman that “the worst thing that ever happened to our country was emancipation, and the reason being is that black people have no self control,” she said. He went on to say that “the fact that they have given you control over our story is enraging.” He’d been watching her, “basically to see if I was a good Negro or not,” she said.

Coleman let him have his say, then told him to leave. “I said, ‘Our business together is done. We will make sure that you have all of your artifacts by the end of the week’. ”

So last year, when white supremacists marched at the Lee statue in Charlottesville and Heather Heyer died in an attack on counterprotesters, Coleman was horrified but not surprised.

Cascading tragedies in Charlottesville

“This is the s--- we’ve been talking about that’s infiltrated [society] for years now,” she said. “I think the bigger difference is that people feel emboldened that they don’t have to keep that among a private circle anymore.”

As terrible as it was, the public agony and cry for answers over Charlottesville brought home for Coleman the importance of what she is doing in Richmond.

Provoke and disturb

Virginia’s capital is an especially profound place to examine where the Civil War fits in American history. So many threads weave together in Richmond — Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Davis, Patrick Henry and the rebellious slave named Gabriel.

“The Civil War has owned this city for 150 years. It’s time for us to own the Civil War,” said Ed Ayers, the historian, author and former University of Richmond president who chairs the museum’s board.

The day Virginia started worshiping Gen. Robert E. Lee

Ayers said Coleman is the right person to lead the way. “I think people are surprised to see an African American woman in this position,” he said. “But to have a single conversation with her is to understand that she possesses this topic in a way that’s remarkable. . . . She’s fearless, but also humane.”

Coleman wants to test the premise she explored in Williamsburg, the idea that a historical presentation can provoke and disturb in a constructive way.

“Museums are not neutral space. We may not be activists, but we’re not neutral,” she said. “If your community is in crisis and you’re an institution that has the resources to add to that conversation to bring it out of crisis, you are failing if you are not actively involved in the needs of your community.”

The key, she said, is for the museum to get visitors to see points of view other than what they’re comfortable with. They’ll use new technology — immersive digital “experiences” — to bring life to the vast collection of artifacts. Rather than concentrate on the usual uniforms and rifles, the exhibits will highlight multiple perspectives — North and South, enslaved and free, soldier and civilian.

Ultimately, it’s the human stories that Coleman hopes will strip away the superficial narrative most people know about the Civil War and get at something that’s messier, but closer to the truth.

“History is so much more complex and nuanced than the comfortable myths that have been established so that everybody can feel good and say we’ve reconciled the North and South,” she said. “If you listen to it, everybody in the South was for the Confederacy and everybody in the North was for ending slavery, and neither of those statements are true.”

Coleman has had to go through the process herself, to learn the fuller meaning behind objects she might otherwise find objectionable, such as Confederate battle flags. And she’s helping the community work through something similar with the statues on Monument Avenue.

Listed by the National Park Service as “the nation’s only grand residential boulevard with monuments of its scale surviving almost unaltered to the present day,” Monument Avenue is a conundrum. Any city would be proud of such an elegant district, but the statues offend many residents.

After Charlottesville, Coleman simply wanted to tear them down. “But that was a very in-the-moment, very heated emotional response. And I know that that wasn’t really my true sentiment,” she said.

She’s a little coy about what her true sentiment is. That may be partly out of propriety — the commission is still in fact-finding mode — but also because she has come to see any Civil War-related artifacts as almost endlessly complex.

“I feel that all of those statues need . . . need . . .” she interrupted herself with a laugh. “Well let me just say this: You can learn something from anything. The big question is making sure that what’s being taught is what you want it to say.”

Telling the whole story

One chilly Thursday night last month, Coleman and three other members of the monuments commission met with about 80 residents at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, one of a series of conversations being held around the city.

Sentiment ran high that something needed to be done about the monuments. But each perspective was slightly different.

An elderly black man described growing up in segregated Richmond. His parents had to pay poll taxes to vote. The monuments must go, he said.

A middle-aged white man pointed out that people own expensive homes around those statues. Instead of tearing them down, use the monuments “to teach the whole history of the Civil War.”

One African American man growled that the statues glorify white supremacists. An elderly white man responded with an angry defense of Robert E. Lee.

Put the statues in a cemetery. Put them on a battlefield. Leave them where they are, but add more signage. Add more statues. Use technology to teach people about the statues on their smartphones.

Richmond mayor vows to confront tributes to Confederacy

Coleman had heard it all before. But she was moved, she said, by the sincerity of so many ordinary people giving up a week night to wrestle with something so tough.

Coleman told the gathering a personal story that at first seemed like a non sequitur. On Sept. 10, 2001, she had a breakup lunch in Manhattan with a man she had thought might be the love of her life. They ate at the World Trade Center, where he worked.

The next morning she watched on television as two planes knocked those towers down. Historic event, personal tragedy.

As the audience absorbed her words, Coleman swung back to the point. “Now, is my story about what happened September 11th the whole story? Is it complete?” she said. “The problem is, too many people have tried to position the American Civil War . . . as their own personal story.”

Every statue, every artifact, can contain a world of different meanings to different people.

“We can’t get right with each other,” she said, “until we are willing to listen.”

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