Virginia needs a new museum.
We’ve said this before. Today we’ll say it again, but with more details.
We’ve previously looked at what other countries have done with monuments of historical figures who had fallen into disfavor. Some of the formerly communist countries in eastern Europe — Hungary, Lithuania and, we’ve since learned, Estonia — have taken the statues that came down along with the Iron Curtain and used them to populate outdoor museums that tell the story of what happened between 1945 and 1989. Nothing quite tells the story of communist repression in Hungary like the “Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial,” which just so happened to get erected in 1956 — the year that Soviet tanks crushed an attempted uprising in Budapest.
Virginia should do the same thing with the Confederate monuments that are now in the process of coming down, lawfully or otherwise. In our case, the period we need to explain is the century from 1869 to 1969, which we don’t necessarily recognize as a time of authoritarian repression but which was for many of Virginia’s citizens.
That century is bookended by two historic events. In 1869, Virginia drafted its post-Civil War constitution, which was a progressive document for its day. It created a free public school system, it extended the vote to Black Virginians, it expanded democracy by requiring local board of supervisors be elected when previously they’d been appointed by judges. Here’s a key point that we don’t remember well: Virginia did not move directly from Reconstruction to repression. There was a period after Reconstruction when Virginia was headed down a different path. Under the Readjusters (a local variant of Republicans), the state abolished the poll tax and the whipping post. It opened Virginia State University to train Black teachers. It appointed Black representatives to state office and even elected some. As late as 1891— decades after Reconstruction — Virginia had an African American congressman. But then came the conservative backlash. Conservative Democrats won control of state government and proceeded to impose what we know today as “Jim Crow” laws. They also set about erecting Confederate monuments, a visible reminder of who was really in charge now. From that came the notorious 1902 state constitution that disenfranchised more than half the state’s voters, a one-party oligarchy and, eventually, massive resistance to the Supreme Court’s order to integrate. Not until 1969, when Republican Linwood Holton was elected governor and declared “the era of defiance is behind us,” can we say that era really ended.
If Virginia were to create a museum to tell the story of that century, some of the key artifacts would be those Confederate monuments that went up during that period. Another would be the statue of U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. — the architect of "Massive Resistance" — that now stands at the state Capitol and is likely to get removed. This museum shouldn’t be a place to glorify Confederates, just in a different venue. It needs to be imbued with the same spirit of somber remembrance as the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
Now, we’ve said much of that before, so today let’s turn to a different question: Where should such a museum go? Richmond is one obvious location. But not every state museum needs to be in the state capital, so what are some other possible locations?
Ideally, such a location would have some historical relationship to the era being depicted. If we’re not limited to Richmond, then one general location becomes obvious: Somewhere in Southside Virginia. That was home to much of the state’s white political establishment at the time. It was also home to much of the state’s African American population, who those white leaders were keen to repress.
There’s some historical symmetry here: It’s in Southside — at Appomattox — where the Civil War ended. And it’s in Southside — at Farmville —where one of the key events in Virginia’s civil rights history happened, the student walkout at R.R. Moton High School in 1951 that is remembered today as “the student birthplace of the American civil rights movement.” The legal case that spun out of that walkout became part of the larger Brown v. Board of Education case that went to the Supreme Court. Today that former school is the Robert Russa Moton Museum. Either of those locations could make a case for our proposed museum of remembrance — Appomattox because it would tell the story of what came afterwards, Farmville because it would tell the larger story of what those students were up against.
Petersburg could make a case. That’s home to the historically Black university that the Readjusters founded during their brief reign and was the political base for John Mercer Langston, the state’s first Black congressman, a Republican whom conservative Democrats tried to block from taking office.
Danville could also make a case. Danville is often remembered as “the last capital of the Confederacy.” Here’s what we don’t remember as well: After Reconstruction, Danville elected a Black majority town council. Nearly half its police officers were Black, and all of its justices of the peace were. That was exactly the kind of thing that the conservative Democrats of the era wanted to stamp out — and did.
Lynchburg could also be a contender, if it wanted to be. One of the signature events of that dark century was the 1902 constitutional convention that repealed the progressive constitution written in 1869. The dominant political figure at that convention was from Lynchburg — Carter Glass, then owner of the city’s two newspapers, the corporate forebears of today’s News & Advance. The convention did more than simply disenfranchise Black voters. It also disenfranchised a lot of white voters, especially Republicans in Southwest Virginia, in the process.
History remembers the 1869 convention as the “Underwood convention” in honor of John Underwood, the Clarke County judge (and pre-war abolitionist) who presided over it with a firm hand. That 1902 convention is, in many ways, the Glass convention.
History gives our proposed museum a compelling story to tell and contemporary events give it some of the artifacts through which to tell the story. It lacks just one thing — a sponsor. It’s understandable that some may not embrace the idea of a museum that tells a story about a regretful part of our history — although it sure wouldn’t be the first. The goal would be to hope it’s the last.