As chief executive of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Va., Christy Coleman stands out for her point of view.
She’s looking for a new way to tell the story of the Civil War in Richmond, which has long portrayed its past in a one-sided way. Richmond’s population is mostly African American, but Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson still cast long shadows. Richmond, along with the rest of the nation, is wrestling with its heritage of racial discrimination.
Coleman, 53, is helping Richmond deal with its past.
“To have someone, a woman, who’s African American, at one of the most important museums in the former capital of the Confederacy — you can’t underestimate how important that is,” said Kevin Levin, a Civil War historian.
At the museum and beyond, Coleman’s goal is to show the Civil War from multiple points of view — not just North and South, but through the eyes of women, Native Americans, enslaved blacks and immigrants. If you can change perspectives, the thinking goes, issues begin to look different. Assumptions waver.
Coleman has tried to change people’s perspectives before.
She grew up in Williamsburg, where she won an audition for a Civil War reenactor role when she was only 17. The other historic interpreters worried about her.
“They were preserving trades,” she said. “I was portraying an enslaved person.”
She saw something horrible overcome visitors who encountered her in that role. The modern veneer slipped aside and out came racial epithets or crude sexual comments. As a young woman, she struggled to process those situations. But she stuck with it, the thrill of giving voice to the voiceless more powerful than the revulsion.
By the mid 1990s, after starting at William & Mary and graduating from Hampton University, Coleman became Colonial Williamsburg’s director for public history. She oversaw all of the historical interpreters.
One of her first big events was an annual market day, reenacting the way Colonial Virginians auctioned cattle and land. A staffer pointed out the obvious: The real market would have sold slaves, too.
Coleman decided it was time to do something radical. She took a plan to upper management to stage a live slave auction. And she would be one of those on the sale block. The idea touched off a national debate.
A massive crowd and international media showed up. Plainclothes police stood among the onlookers, just in case. And Coleman and three other African Americans let themselves be sold to the highest bidders.
Today, that event is viewed as a landmark success in the modern retelling of American history. After generations of avoiding the topic, other major institutions — such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier — now confront enslavement as a major component of their interpretation.
But it exacted a heavy price on Coleman. The emotional stress brought on panic attacks that stuck with her through years of therapy. She never repeated the auction.
A few years after recreating the live slave auction, Coleman was wooed to Detroit to run the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Nearly a decade into that job, Coleman was married and had two small children and wanted to slow things down a bit. She got word of a small museum back home in Virginia that was looking for a shake-up.
The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar was Richmond’s second museum dedicated to the conflict. The first, the Museum of the Confederacy, grew from memorabilia collected by the widows and wives of Confederate veterans after the Civil War.
But by the turn of the 21st century, it became harder for the Museum of the Confederacy to raise money for an institution seen as a shrine to the Lost Cause.
When Tredegar opened across town, it boasted a spectacular location and private money, but only a modest collection of artifacts. The two museums eyed each other. When Tredegar needed a new leader in 2008, it asked the director of the Museum of the Confederacy — a garrulous former banker named Waite Rawls III — to help with interviews. He urged them to hire Coleman.
“She and I hit it off pretty quickly,” Rawls said. “Christy is the consummate museum professional. . . . I’m not. I’m a business guy who’s a very knowledgeable Civil War buff.”
After a few years of collaborating, they took their boards a plan to merge the museums. It was completed in 2013.
Rawls stuck with fundraising as head of the foundation, and Coleman took charge of presenting the history at the museum’s facilities, which now included the Confederate White House and Tredegar, as well as the Lee surrender site in Appomattox. The combination led to a huge influx of cash, powering a $37 million expansion at Tredegar that when it opens this year will provide a new setting for the big collection.
Some saw the changing museum as a threat. It was now about the Civil War as a whole, instead of the Confederacy. And, of course, Coleman was in charge.
“Mr. Rawls, I think you have done a wrong thing to us,” one man said in a voice mail that Rawls saved on his computer. “I just want to let you know to kiss my ass, you ain’t no good, you need to get the hell out of office!”
A Confederate legacy group launched a social-media crusade to “Stop Christy Coleman from taking our heritage!” Local police warned Coleman to beef up security.
She had encountered this kind of thing before. When the museum displayed a painting of Abraham Lincoln in the ruins of Richmond, for instance, a man came in who had donated numerous artifacts.
He was outraged by the painting and told Coleman that “the worst thing that ever happened to our country was emancipation, and the reason being is that black people have no self control,” she said. He went on to say that “the fact that they have given you control over our story is enraging.” He’d been watching her, “basically to see if I was a good Negro or not,” she said.
Coleman let him have his say, then told him to leave. “I said, ‘Our business together is done. We will make sure that you have all of your artifacts by the end of the week’. ”
So last year, when white supremacists marched at the Lee statue in Charlottesville and Heather Heyer died in an attack on counterprotesters, Coleman was horrified but not surprised.
“This is the s--- we’ve been talking about that’s infiltrated [society] for years now,” she said. “I think the bigger difference is that people feel emboldened that they don’t have to keep that among a private circle anymore.”
As terrible as it was, the public agony and cry for answers over Charlottesville brought home for Coleman the importance of what she is doing in Richmond.
Ed Ayers, the historian, author and former University of Richmond president who chairs the museum’s board, said Coleman is the right person to lead Richmond into the future.
“I think people are surprised to see an African American woman in this position,” he said. “But to have a single conversation with her is to understand that she possesses this topic in a way that’s remarkable. . . . She’s fearless, but also humane.”
Coleman wants to test the premise she explored in Williamsburg, the idea that a historical presentation can provoke and disturb in a constructive way.
“Museums are not neutral space. We may not be activists, but we’re not neutral,” she said. “If your community is in crisis and you’re an institution that has the resources to add to that conversation to bring it out of crisis, you are failing if you are not actively involved in the needs of your community.”
The key, she said, is for the museum to get visitors to see points of view other than what they’re comfortable with. They’ll use new technology — immersive digital “experiences” — to bring life to the vast collection of artifacts. Rather than concentrate on the usual uniforms and rifles, the exhibits will highlight multiple perspectives — North and South, enslaved and free, soldier and civilian.
Ultimately, it’s the human stories that Coleman hopes will strip away the superficial narrative most people know about the Civil War and get at something that’s messier, but closer to the truth.