How a story about Richmond’s past came to be

The Jefferson Davis Monument in Richmond.
The Jefferson Davis Monument in Richmond.(Jay Paul for The Boston Globe)

WASHINGTON — The car radio was filled with horrific reports about a South Carolina shooting when I drove recently from Washington to Richmond for an assignment. By the time I arrived in Virginia’s capital, it became clear that during the previous evening a white man who considered himself a descendant of the Confederacy had allegedly killed nine blacks in a Charleston church.

As it happened, I was on my way to Richmond for a long-planned story in the Globe’s “Divided Nation” series about conflicts in the way that the city’s residents choose to remember its history. The story, published Sunday, contrasted the grand way the city memorializes the Confederacy with the lesser focus on Richmond’s enormous role in the slave trade. The assignment had taken on new meaning in the wake of the Charleston tragedy, and it likely appeared to readers that it was spurred by the shooting.


In fact, the kernel for the story had been planted on a day in 2008 when I drove down Monument Avenue and wondered what the city’s African-Americans thought of the elegant boulevard’s soaring statuary of Confederate leaders.

Some stories just take a while to find their moment.

I had been particularly struck by the 67-foot-high statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, because it seeks to directly tell a story that is refuted by many. It is etched in stone that Davis was fighting for “constitutional principles” and that he acted “not in hostility to others” – all with no reference to his role in keeping hundreds of thousands of blacks in slavery. (The General Robert E. Lee statue down the street says only “Lee.”)

On the day that I first passed by the Davis statue seven years ago, I was steeped in the city’s history, working on a book titled, “Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War.” A portion of the book takes place in Richmond when Jefferson was the state’s second governor. In 1781, nearly five years after Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence (even as he kept slaves) that “All Men Are Created Equal,” the traitor Benedict Arnold led a British armada into the state. The invasion forced Governor Jefferson and the Legislature to flee the capital. Even at this dire time Jefferson and other Virginia leaders refused suggestions that slaves be freed to help the American cause. Instead, it was the British who freed many slaves.


What became clear was that if you want to understand Richmond’s continuing divisions, you have to go all of the way back to some of the nation’s founders who were based there.

Richmond is suffused in such history. St. John’s Church sits on a height of land that provides a sweeping view of Richmond and the Palladian-styled statehouse designed by Jefferson. It was here that Patrick Henry, the first governor of Virginia, famously called for the American Revolution when he said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Liberty, however, only for some people; Henry, too, owned slaves even though he wrote that “I cannot justify it.”

All of this was on my mind when I returned to Richmond recently for the first of two visits I would make to report the story of the city’s Confederate past. I had planned to go to Richmond on June 18 because a meeting was being held at the Virginia Historical Society to discuss the future of Shockoe Bottom, where an estimated 350,000 slaves were traded in the 35 years before the end of the Civil War. The site is a lawn that some want to be highlighted with a museum, providing more balance to Monument Avenue.


Now, less than 24 hours after the Charleston shooting, the Richmond meeting was attended by more than 100 residents, many of whom felt the city should do more to remember its role in slavery. Given that the alleged shooter had surrounded himself with symbols such as the Confederate flag and had visited slave plantations, emotions ran strong as residents discussed the city’s own role in expanding slavery. As so often happens in Richmond, this brought the past and the present into the same view, the legacy of slavery and the Confederacy still passionately felt 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

I telephoned one of the city’s deepest thinkers, the Rev. Benjamin Campbell, who was out of town but eager to provide context. Campbell is a seventh-generation Virginian and the author of “Richmond’s Unhealed History.” He has for years ministered to the city’s whites and blacks, poor and wealthy, and has regularly seen the city’s struggle to deal with its tortured history. He teaches a leadership course at an inner city high school that is 97 percent African-American. He lives in an ecumenical Christian monastery a few blocks from St. John’s Church, where Henry spoke. From a monastery window, he can see Jefferson’s elegant capital building. When he meets with visitors who ask about Richmond’s history, he tells them to consider the prominent role of Jefferson and Henry, two of the nation’s most eloquent spokesmen for liberty, both slave owners.


“You are living in a hypocrisy,” Campbell said he tells visitors. “We call it the American Revolution, but it was a half-revolution, half went into freedom, half into slavery. We have a tremendous sense of passivity and insensitivity that has really paralyzed Virginia.”

In interviewing a number of Richmond residents on my two recent visits, I heard repeatedly that the city is making progress dealing with its past. Efforts to preserve African-American history have increased, and discussions are increasing about the proposed slavery museum. Several said that they believed the Charleston shooting has raised expectations that Richmond will make an aggressive push to have more balance in its presentation of the Confederacy and slavery.

On Sunday, in a striking sign of the change, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an editorial that called for the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue. That may not happen. The city says it is up to the state, and the Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, has focused on removing the Confederate flag on license plates. “But not statues,” McAuliffe said recently on MSNBC. “I mean, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, these are all parts of our heritage.”

So Richmond’s latest war – the war over remembrance – marches on.


Michael Kranish can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKranish