I knew it was counterintuitive for an African-American (me) to visit Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy two days before Martin Luther King Day and the second inauguration of our first black president. But I went anyway, because I'm on a journey into a past I didn't know I had.
This mission started a year ago, south of Richmond, and just outside Williamsburg at a top-secret military base called Camp Peary. (It's also reported to be a Central Intelligence Agency facility, though when I asked a public affairs officer about the Agency's presence using the familiar initials, he deadpanned, "You mean the Culinary Institute of America?")
The installation occupies almost 11,000 acres along the York River. This land was owned until 1943 by hundreds of families, mostly African-American, some of whom had lived there since the end of the Civil War. They were evicted to expand a World War II navy training base; their community, called Magruder, was bulldozed. My father was born in Magruder. My great-grandfather, a formerly enslaved person and Union soldier, is buried on the base.
Camp Peary inherited several cemeteries when it took the land. Last year, I got permission to visit the African-American burial ground with my wife, Erin, and relatives. We were escorted by a public affairs representative and a friendly (and armed) police officer. For 70 years the military hadn't maintained the cemetery, but the current leadership has taken steps to spruce it up.
I didn't know much about Mat or his wife, Julia. No one in our family did. Our history, like that of most African-Americans, is largely a vacuum before the 20th century. I knew that this absence of history was actually an erasure of African-American history. And I knew that blacks were systematically stripped not just of their freedom, but of their identities and family bonds to keep them isolated and ignorant. This was an essential component of slavery and of the system of terror and legal peonage put in its place, called Jim Crow. But knowledge of these injustices didn't fill my own vacuum.
Standing at Mat's tilting and fractured headstone, though, I felt the beginnings of a powerful connection to my ancestors, men and women who carved lives out of Virginia swampland against all odds.
This is arguably our nation's most significant social, political, and economic transformation: African-Americans who by law had been considered property before the Civil War fighting for the right to own property after it. It's an amazing American story, one that has been nearly erased with the destruction of Magruder and communities like it all over the South.
Fundamentally, the MoC shrouds the horrific machinery of the slaveholding South in empty but seductive myths and Confederate flags.Tucked away behind a locked glass door in the museum's basement education center are large photos of poor but tidy black folks. I saw no images of chains, whips, or any of the mechanisms of control and violence that defined the slave system. There is no standing exhibit dedicated to the very foundation of southern (and northern) prosperity, slavery -- and certainly nothing about black resistance, sometimes violent but often not, to the inhuman system.
Yes, there were slaves here, Charlie, the Museum of the Confederacy guide, told us, theatrically. As he uttered the s-word, he raised his hands and waggled his fingers, a gesture reminiscent of Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.Back in the real world, on Martin Luther King Day, Republicans in the Virginia state senate rammed through amendments to a redistricting plan that would have created a black majority district (yay?) -- but carved out even more GOP-controlled districts. Ahhh. The Republicans in the evenly divided chamber were able to pass the legislation only because one Democrat, African American civil rights lawyer and stalwart Henry Marsh, was in Washington, D.C., at the presidential inauguration. "For Senate Republicans to use my absence to push through a partisan redistricting plan that hurts voters across the state is shameful," Marsh said in a statement. Over at Esquire.com's "Politics Blog," Charles P. Pierce had a less delicate response:
This is a legislature acting to devalue African American voters to the advantage of white voters. This is Jim Crow bullshit, and no politician who deals in it, and no political party that continues to support said politician, is worthy of support by decent people in the year 20-goddamn-13.
But on February 6, something surprising and heartening happened in Richmond: The Republican speaker of the house stripped the measure from the bill it had been affixed to, effectively killing the plan.
"One can only imagine what concessions on other legislation were extracted from Virginia Democrats behind the scenes in exchange for Republicans 'voluntarily' killing the Senate redistricting bill," writes Peter Rousselet at ARL.com. Something to think about -- and investigate -- but this is definitely a victory worth celebrating.
Also on MLK Day, Virginia Republicans pushed through one last motion after their redistricting gambit: to adjourn "in memory of General Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson," the Confederate general -- an insult, to be sure, but one with less potential to cause injury than the redistricting plan.