Confederacy. Union. Freedom.

by Cory Schutter

On the tinted glass doors of the museum are three words: Confederacy. Union. Freedom.

These words frame a visit to the Museum of the Confederacy — three complicated, tense, load-bearing words. They frame the Civil War as an idealistic fight for freedom, and I wonder about the truth in this. When we talk about freedom, to whose freedom do we refer?

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Maymont’s Unsung Heroes

by Catherine Franceski

As I walked through Maymont’s gates on a balmy summer morning, I imagined that I must have felt exactly as many visitors did around the turn of the 20th century– full of awe and wonder. Today, Maymont encompasses a Gilded Age mansion, a petting zoo, and extensive gardens and grounds. Acquired in 1886 by James and Sallie May Dooley, Maymont, an 100 acre estate on the banks of the James River, was undoubtedly one of the largest properties owned in Richmond. James Dooley was a confederate major in his youth and later became a prominent lawyer and businessman. His wife, Sallie, grew up on a Virginia plantation and later wrote “Dem Good Ole Days,” a collection of short works glorifying the Antebellum period written from the perspective of an enslaved person. The couple, having no heirs, donated Maymont to the city of Richmond after Sallie’s death in 1925.

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This Week in the Archive: A Reflection for the Change Conformers, Absurd Plastic Hippies, and System Dissenters

by Dominique Harrington

I’ve read, Jarett Drake’s, “Documenting Dissent in the Contemporary College Archive: Finding our Function within the Liberal Arts”, a few times, as I worked with the University of Richmond’s Race & Racism Project this past fall. I’m more and more convinced as to the inherent liberatory and reconciliatory nature of archives each time I read it.  Towards the end of this piece, Drake discussed having an Ida B. Wells quote printed on a t-shirt, “Those who commit murders write the reports…”  However, it wasn’t until my third time reading this piece that I was inspired to looked up the context of the quote.  It is an excerpt from an anti-lynching speech that Wells gave on February 13, 1893, which was later published in Our Day magazine in May of that same year.  Many folks are familiar with the popular phrase, “History is told by those who win.”  However, with this quote, Wells offered a slightly different manifestation of this notion. Rather than looking at history through a lens of triumph or defeat, she astutely points out that we must also look at historical figures as those actively perpetuating systems of oppression, whether it be as intentional and explicit as lynching, or whether it is an instance where the Dean of a conservative women’s college submitted a report sharing her appraisal of the untraditional direction she felt that her students were drifting.

Dean Keith and Westhampton College Students
Dean Keith and Westhampton College Students

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The Valentine: An Inclusive Richmond

By Benjamin Pomerantz

A few weeks ago, I visited The Valentine, a museum in the city of Richmond that focuses on telling the story of Richmond’s history. Now, to be clear, there are many ways and many perspectives from which to develop a historical narrative–from the white Confederate point of view, from the enslaved point of view, from the free black point of view, from the immigrant point of view, etc. Based on my experience, I thought that the curators of The Valentine did their best to make the museum’s narrative of Richmond’s history inclusive of all Richmonders. Instead of focusing on the story of a certain population of Richmond, The Valentine includes many perspectives of Richmond in an attempt to portray Richmond as a diverse city with people of many interacting beliefs, customs, and lifestyles. As someone partnering with Untold RVA, it was exciting to see stories of black self-determination and resistance at a Richmond museum, especially because the city tends to memorialize the legacy of the Confederacy as opposed to the lives of enslaved people and free blacks in Richmond.

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A Visit to Maymont

By Jennifer Munnings

Maymont, what once was the home of James and Sallie Dooley, is best described as superfluous. As Catherine and I walked through the Japanese and Italian gardens we were struck by the immense beauty of Maymont. There were vibrant flowers all around, and as we explored, the quiet rush of a waterfall played in the background. The Gilded Age mansion was a grand display of wealth, walls were lined with gold, whole rooms were decorated by Tiffany, and there was an ivory vanity made from narwhal instead of elephant tusk.

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Controversy, Context, and Consecration at the Museum of the Confederacy

By Hunter Moyler

Notwithstanding my fifth-grade teacher’s contention that the Confederate battle flag was something “we” used during the war and a banner all southerners, particularly Virginians, could flaunt proudly, I have always read it as something bad. A symbol worthy of loathing, and, at times, fear.

My earliest recollection of the flag comes from when I was a chubby-cheeked Cub Scout. The Pack attended a small reenactment of a Civil War battle. (The battle didn’t take place in our town, but since it is Virginia, you’d best believe it was probably one or two miles over the hill.) When I saw the Johnny Wannabe Rebs step out with St. Andrew’s Cross, I promptly stood up and shouted, “Boo! The South! You guys stink!” causing everyone’s heads to swivel toward me like southern cannons rearing to fire. And I was the Yankee.

Dad and I went home a little early that day.

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Visit to the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar

By Maryam Tahseen

For my site visit as a summer researcher, I decided to visit the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar. Even though the Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865, the museum’s timeline started from 1775 to demonstrate the build-up to the war. The war was fought between the Union in the North and the Confederacy in the South. According to the museum exhibit, many economic and political reasons were given for the war; however, the main issue underlying all these reasons was slavery. The Confederates advocated for each state’s right to perpetual slavery and its expansion into other states while the Unionists swore their allegiance to the United States constitution and eventually fought for the freedom of slaves.

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Retelling Stories with Proper Language

by Elizabeth Mejía-Ricart 

How many times have you employed the term “slave” to refer to individuals whose identities would seem to rely on their status as property? Even I have been guilty of using this term multiple times to describe what really are “enslaved people.” Before my first encounter with founder of Untold RVA and community historian, Free Egunfemi, I would have never come to realize the ease with which I used what she calls “the language of the oppressor,” instead of that of the “oppressed.” Indeed, employing words such as “slaves” and “masters” to define groups of people allows for a dehumanization of the institution of slavery, and at the same time, reduces enslaved individuals to the position they held in society, treating them as property instead of people.

As part of Team 2 of the Race & Racism in the University of Richmond project, I have the opportunity to collaborate and work directly with Egunfemi, who aims to spread history throughout the Richmond community about the oppressed. In particular, I have paid close attention to the language she utilizes to empower those whose history has been silenced. As I began conducting research, I have kept Egunfemi’s careful wording in mind, and at the same time her themes of self-determination, resistance, and intersectionality in order to continue her mission of retelling history from the point of view of the oppressed.

My initial involvement in the project has included a close reading and examination of the book Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction by Midori Takagi. Fortunately, I was pleased to read stories of the oppressed uncovered by the aforementioned author. Takagi’s text clearly fits the guidelines given by Egunfemi for conducting research, giving enslaved persons a leading role in the history of slavery in Richmond. At the same time, her book highlights enslaved people’s self-determination, resistance, and the different ways slavery affected individuals according to their gender and other identities.

Although to the naked eye this book might seem a perfect example of what our team members are trying to document as activists and archivists, there is an important aspect which the book is lacking— the use of the language of the oppressed in the retelling of this group’s history. While I read Tagaki’s text, I could recognize that even though the author was narrating the story of an oppressed group through their own lenses, she was employing the language of the dominant race. Thus, my job as an archival activist was not done. It was my duty to tell the stories of marginalized groups such as enslaved persons, and document their histories of injustice using the terminology of the oppressed. I continued to document the anecdotes uncovered by Takagi in her book, but the keywords associated with the narrative were those that would paint a more vivid picture of the institution of slavery and that would portray these marginalized groups as people whose identities extend beyond their position in society.

Keywords such as enslaved person, human captor and human trafficker are the ones being used by Team 2 in an active effort to replace terms commonly employed in portraying the history of slavery, such as slave, master/owner, and slave trader. The language we are trying to perpetuate is one that not only emphasizes the severity and solemnity of the institution of slavery, but also acknowledges the individuals’ identity beyond the latter institution. Through our understandings of critical race theory, we recognize the prevalence of white privilege in the American society. The dominant classes have shaped the archival records for centuries, and therefore, they have imposed the language commonly used nowadays to refer to these stories. It is only fair for us, as collaborators of Untold RVA, to communicate those narratives that have been buried and unrecorded by the privileged groups, in a way that will honor the marginalized and resist the systems of dominance and oppression.

Ultimately, language is a powerful tool that can shape our conception of society, including the perpetuation of systems of oppression. In order to effectively challenge these structures and bring about social justice we need to start with a change in our expressions, supporting and validating those that have been silenced and oppressed. So, before you use the word “slave” or “master” again, ask yourself: Who am I empowering?

Elizabeth Mejía-Ricart is from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. She is a rising sophomore at the University of Richmond who is planning to major in Economics and minor in Mathematics. Elizabeth is a Boatwright and Oliver Hill Scholar, who is part of the University Dancers Company on campus. This is Elizabeth’s first experience as an A&S Summer Fellow, however, she is excited to discover more about the University of Richmond’s history and about the city itself through Untold RVA and her collaboration with Free Egunfemi.  

Basements and Bontemps

by Cory Schutter

We’re halfway through the summer and I’m proud to say that I’m mastering the lost art of finding books in the library basement. Surrounded by the smell of forgotten books, I’ve learned that there’s something sacred about moving bookshelves, running my finger along book spines, and finding the right call number.

Black Thunder. PS 3503 .0474 B5x 1968.

I’ve found Arna Bontemps’ fictionalized 1936 account of Gabriel’s Revolt, and I start thumbing through the pages. I have to pause at the first words: “Time is not a river. Time is a pendulum.”

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I imagine the way these swaying narratives sketch a harmonograph of stories with geometric relationships to us and each other. As students learning the work of activist archivists, we have a burden to bring the immaterial world into the physical one. This work triangulates forgotten stories, spreadsheets of metadata, and the creation of new spaces of memorialization. The pendulum is always swaying between the past and the present – stories meeting spaces.

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