Then & Now: 50 years of Civil War committees

As we begin our commemoration of the Civil War and Emancipation, it is helpful to reflect on the changes and similarities between our plans over the next four years to the Civil War Centennial events in the 1960s.

As we begin our commemoration of the Civil War and Emancipation, it is helpful to reflect on the changes and similarities between our plans over the next four years to the Civil War Centennial events in the 1960s. In a series of articles over next 4 years, I will be looking into the 1.6 million objects in the collections of the Valentine Richmond History Center to explore the common elements shared by both the Civil War and Emancipation 150 Committee and the Richmond Civil War Centennial Committee and the significant changes that have occurred in the ways we approach the Civil War and its impact today.

Many of the goals of both commemorations are very similar. History was then, and is seen today as, the key to Richmond’s development as a tourism destination but creating a welcoming experience for visitors was the challenge. It should not be much of a surprise that one of the goals shared by both committees was the need for wayfinding signage–a great future topic.

One of the most telling differences can be found in the tours that will be offered to visitors to the City. The Valentine Richmond History Center now offers over 360 walking and bus tours of our region each summer. These tours explore the diversity of Richmond’s neighborhoods and a broad range of our history. From Jewish and Gay & Lesbian bus tours to walking tours in Church Hill and Highland Park, our tour program attempts to acknowledge the richness and complexity of the Richmond story to both visitors and residents.

The Centennial tours were very different. To give a tour in Richmond in 1961 required a guide license that was issued by the City of Richmond through the Richmond Civil War Committee. While there were no formal tests, prospective guides had to say, according to an article in the Richmond Times Dispatch, that they had visited: the site of Libby Prison at 20th & Cary Streets, the Richmond National Battlefield Parks headquarter on Chimborazo Hill, the Confederate Museum (now the Museum of the Confederacy), Battle Abbey (now the Virginia Historical Society), the State Capitol, the Lee House, and Confederate trenches at Byrd Field. In addition, guides needed to indicate that they had seen the four Confederate statues along Monument Ave and taken a prescribed tour along Rt. 156 visiting battlefields from Mechanicsville to the James River. These requirements were proposed by Centennial Committee Chair J. Ambler Johnston who is quoted in the Richmond Times-Dispatch as saying that “unless a person has done all of those things, I don’t think that he is qualified as a guide.” There was also a required reading list that included the Richmond Chamber of Commerce automobile guide to area battlefields, the Confederate Museum’s Illustrated Guide to Richmond, “The Historic Guide to Richmond and the James River” by Caroline Rivers Harrison and other Civil War focused publications.

Today there is no licensing by the City for official guides. Tour services are provided by a number of organizations from the Elegba Folklore Society and the Valentine Richmond History Center, to individuals with particular specialties. Food, the arts, and shopping, in addition to history, are all key components of the tourist experience. Just as the number and variety of tours has increased so have the sites available for our guests. What a different Richmond we offer to today’s history visitor! The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, Virginia War Memorial, Maggie Walker House and Historic Site, American Civil War Center, Magnolia Grange, Meadow Farm, Henricus, and many other historic houses and sites have been added to the public’s experience of Richmond’s history since 1960s. The reenactments at Historic St. John’s Church that are so much a part of the Richmond experience today did not begin until the 1970s. The interpretative approaches of the Museum of the Confederacy, Virginia Historical Society, and the Valentine Richmond History Center have responded to new scholarship and changing standards in museums. From Patrick Henry to Doug Wilder, the City has nurtured it historic resources to tell a deeper American story.

In many ways, these changes are reflected in the training and certification of the guides for the History Center. While there is no City licensing, the History Center’s rigorous guide school with its certification program not only reflects changes in the cultural and historic resources of the region, but also narrative that includes a much broader and inclusive view of our past. We just graduated a new class of 12 guides. In addition to the sites that were required visits fifty years ago have been added all of the new museums and historic sites that have been created. We have also included those important properties that need further development and recognition such as the African Burial Ground, Lumpkins Jail, and the Midlothian Mines.

Hope you will check out our tours this summer. A full schedule is available on our website.

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Next time we will take a look at membership and priorities of the official 1960 and 2010 organizing committees.


Bill Martin is the Executive Director of the Valentine Richmond History Center

On to Richmond!

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