Day #008: Embrace non-Civil War History

Interesting history happened in Richmond outside of the years 1861-1865, and it’s time to give that history a home

Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.

  • Idea: Three museums that will fundamentally change the way we tell Richmond’s story.
  • Difficulty: 4 — Museums are expensive, and acquiring documents and collections is challenging work. It would take a long time and many steps to open even one of these three museums.

Richmond’s Civil War monuments and museums are second to none. Towering statues line Monument Avenue, the White House of the Confederacy is a truly unique reminder that for a brief time Virginia seceded, and several museums do an unmatched job documenting the war. These features of education and remembrance are important, but there’s an obscene amount of Richmond and Virginia history that is woefully underrepresented in this city.

Slavery Museum

Museums are important. In some cases they are celebrations of our accomplishments. In other cases they are ways of documenting our shortcomings and saying “never again.” Holocaust museums dot the globe. The Alamo and Pearl Harbor stand as monuments to the fortitude of the American spirit and the military responses that followed.

We’re pretty good at pointing out the shortcomings of Germany, the abuses of Mexico on a nation that wasn’t the United States, and an unprovoked act of war on a U.S. territory. At times we are terrible at reflecting upon our own faults and complicated history. Void from the physical reminders we’ve built for ourselves and our posterity is a definitive statement on slavery: “never again and here’s why.”

The Slavery Museum planned for Shockoe Bottom is in the works as part of the redevelopment plan but is still far from breaking ground. The city pledged $5 million in order to guarantee an $11 million pledge from the state but its connection with baseball leaves some doubts.

John Bates, general counsel for Venture Richmond definitely shared these doubts in May in a Richmond Times Dispatch article:

The corporate community, in addition to having concerns about the long-term viability of a museum built by itself, views the slave heritage site as a piece of a larger project that includes revitalization of an important part of our city…It is my considered view that the private funding needed for that project will not happen, at least to the degree needed to do it, if the ballpark, grocery store, hotel and so forth is not all done at the same time.

It’s sad to see where this museum is in the hierarchy of baseball, hotels, and grocery stores.

The idea of the museum already has a complicated history. Governor Wilder has advocated for a museum for almost two decades. He even started a foundation and acquired land for a museum in Fredericksburg, but the organization filed bankruptcy in 2011 after owing the city more than $300,000 in taxes.

Not only is documenting this part of Richmond’s history the right thing to do, Richmond could own it with authority. Shockoe Bottom housed the second-largest slave market in the nation and the largest with roots in America.1 It’s almost unbelievable that a AA baseball park would take priority and overshadow the opportunity to build the premier monument and center of education for slavery in the United State of America.

Presidential Library

Five presidents called Virginia home and eight were born in this fine state, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Woodrow Wilson.

In 1955 Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act which “established a system of privately erected and federally maintained libraries.” While Washington has Mount Vernon, Jefferson the Monticello, and Wilson a two story library in Staunton, those other presidents missed out on the opportunity to have formal libraries which house artifacts, their story, and most importantly their presidential papers.

While none of them were born in Richmond,2 Richmond is strategically located to honor and document these individuals with an all encompassing Presidential Library of Virginia. Raising worthy funding and acquiring presidential papers from UVA and William & Mary would be huge challenges, but the museum would be attractive nationally and would be a worthy investment.

William Henry Harrison was the first president to die in office. James Monroe went to France negotiate the Louisiana Purchase and was the last living Founding Father. John Tyler was the first president not elected to the position. His quick assumption of duties and expedient swearing in held together a nation with a much different self-identity in a moment of crisis.

These seem like small stories, but they are worthy of documentation and could find an attractive home in Richmond alongside the stories of Jefferson who designed the Richmond Capitol and Washington who surveyed and planned the Kanawha Canal.

Roots of the Constitution Museum

It’s one of the most important documents in the history of the human race: the United States Constitution. In addition to establishing the framework of our nation, the document has acted as a model for dozens of other countries while surviving two challenging centuries.

Many of the people who shaped that document, including its architect James Madison, were from Virginia and got their starts working in the capitol in Williamsburg before 1780 and then, later, in Richmond.

Virginia also adopted many documents and precedents that served as examples for the Constitution such as a bicameral legislature, an executive, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Virginia was also a driver in many of the shortcomings including the 3/5ths compromise.

George Mason was the father of United States Bill of Rights. We remember Patrick Henry by regularly, but perhaps inaccurately, delivering his speech “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death Speech” at Saint John’s Church.3 What about his two terms as governor and fierce opposition to the US Constitution? John Marshall is arguably the most important Chief Justice in the history of the Supreme Court. His decision in Marbury v. Madison established the court as an equal branch of government.

These aren’t accomplishments that should be solely relegated to an eighth grade civics classroom or smaller, disperse museums. These are accomplishments that deserve celebration and remembrance at least on par if not in excess of the Civil War.

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Virginia has an incredibly rich history outside of the Civil War that is woefully under-represented in Richmond. These museums not only make sense because of their historic importance, but they would attract individuals from around the region, state, and nation.

Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.

Photo by: rvaphotodude

  1. New Orleans’s was larger but had its roots in France. 
  2. The Arthur Ashe monument is the only one on Monument Avenue dedicated to someone born in Richmond. 
  3. The first account of the speech was assembled in 1815 by William Wirt. Scholars continue to debate its accuracy. 
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Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams loves music, basketball (follow @rvaramnews!), family, learning, and barbecue sauce.

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