Richmond reflects on emancipation, 150 years later

More than 5,000 people gathered in Capitol Square to watch Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones, and other speakers commemorate the liberation of Richmond by U.S. troops, the emancipation of the city’s slaves and the end of the American Civil War.

By Sean CW Korsgaard | Capital News Service

A day dedicated to the Fall of Richmond became one celebrating its liberation, and just as much about challenges in Virginia’s future as celebrating its past.

More than 5,000 people gathered in Capitol Square on Saturday to watch Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones and several other speakers commemorate the liberation of Richmond by U.S. troops, the emancipation of the city’s slaves and the end of the American Civil War.

“Richmond’s Journey From the End of Slavery and Civil War to Today” was the theme for four days of events that ended Saturday. Capping off re-enactments, exhibits and ceremonies, a series of speakers on the steps of the Capitol building concluded Richmond’s part in the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Most used the occasion to celebrate the end of slavery, commend progress made in civil rights and call for further progress.

McAuliffe began his speech by recalling some of the lesser-known stories of triumph from the Fall of Richmond, including tales of reunited slave families and a promise made by President Abraham Lincoln that was forgotten as segregation and Jim Crow laws took hold in the American South.

“Not 30 yards from this podium, President Lincoln addressed a crowd of freed slaves, telling them that now ‘you belong to no one but God,'” McAuliffe said. “Those early ideals gave way to a system that was separate and clearly unequal, and thank goodness the civil rights era helped us move closer to those earlier ideals.”

The governor was the first of several speakers to point out for all of the progress made, there is still more work to be done, with McAuliffe citing education and voting rights specifically.

“Today’s ceremony is a reminder that we still have unfinished business in our nation and that we need to do a better job,” McAuliffe said. “We need to think of what folks did here 150 years ago and have the courage to ask what kind of commonwealth do we want to be in another 150 years.”

McAuliffe was followed by Jones, who commended the progress made by the city in the century and a half since it served as the capital of the Confederacy. “We look back today at Richmond as a city transformed,” the mayor said. “Where once there were antebellum houses and slave pens, our city now hosts restaurants, shops, schools and universities that serve all of Richmond’s residents.”

That last point was an especially personal one for Jones. He is an alumnus of Virginia Union University, a historically black college in Richmond whose origins trace back to the liberation of Richmond, when Lumpkin’s Jail–where slaves were imprisoned before being sold–was converted into a school for Richmond’s newly freed African-American residents.

“I stand before you today as testament to Richmond’s journey, a product of my alma mater, Virginia Union University,” said Jones, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of South Richmond. “What began as a symbol of slavery became a place of education and has become an enduring symbol of emancipation.”

A choir from Virginia Union University accompanied the ceremony. Its performance of “I Can Only Imagine” was referenced by several speakers.

Christy Coleman, co-CEO of the American Civil War Museum, spoke of the changing ways of remembering the war.

“It’s about time that we found a way to tell our stories in truth, in wholeness and in togetherness,” Coleman said. “We did that under a banner called ‘the future of Richmond’s past’ because we believed that such a thing was important to the future of a city that we love.”

Saturday’s events were largely celebratory, focusing on the end of the Civil War and slavery, rather than on the defeat of the Confederacy as past commemorations might have. John Coski, historian and vice president at the American Civil War Museum, said that the shift in focus from one of loss to one of liberation means Virginia and Richmond may have turned a corner.

“The idea of Blue Coats in a Gray City would have once elicited a good deal of anger,” Coski said. “This event is a pretty good indication of how people feel today, and I could not have said that 15 years ago.”

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