Letter: Opportunity exists for wider commemoration
I was fortunate to attend one in a series of Richmond community discussions called "The Future of Richmond’s Past." This community conversation arose due to the controversy over the "celebration" of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Out of this tension, Richmonders got together and began to have a frank conversation about presenting a more cohesive picture of the history of the city, which was the capital of the Confederacy. In Richmond, they aren’t "celebrating" the Civil War. They are commemorating "the 150th anniversaries of two of the major events in American history: the Civil War and the end of American slavery."
So, after hearing and taking to heart thoughtful and emotional presentations made by Richmond speakers of different races, I was subsequently disappointed upon receiving information about the upcoming "festivities" and "celebration" of the last muster of the 21st Virginia Militia in Gloucester. Reading through the schedule of events, I didn’t see anything that made me think that the Gloucester Sesquicentennial Committee was using this 150th anniversary to similarly commemorate the Civil War and the end of slavery in Gloucester.
Five years ago, when preparing to write "Images of America: Gloucester County," I read "The Honey-Pod Tree" by Thomas C. Walker. I was struck by the details of that difficult period after the Civil War when freed slaves struggled to establish homes and families and take care of their basic needs in Gloucester County. Among other things I also read "The Life Worth Living," written just down the road at Elmington Plantation, by Thomas Dixon. He was also the author of "The Clansman," which became D.W. Griffith’s "The Birth of a Nation," a silent film that provoked white supremacy activity.
Therefore, in my book on Gloucester, I tried to contrast the world and legacy of General William T. Taliaferro and Thomas C. Walker and encourage readers to think about Gloucester more broadly than they may have in the past. I dedicated the book to the citizens of Gloucester who shaped its past and care about its future and followed these words with quotes by Taliaferro and Walker.
Perhaps it is too late for this year—or perhaps someone is initiating this and it’s just not well advertised yet—but I hope that future presentations about the Civil War will take into account that the war was fought because of the economic and cultural differences between North and South, and then present the war’s impact on a broader segment of Americans.
In "The Honey-Pod Tree," Walker recalls how his father, as a newly freed slave from Roaring Springs Farm, walked to Richmond to find his wife and son, who had been taken west by their owner, the owner of the farm next door to Roaring Springs. What a great story this would be to incorporate with the muster at Roaring Springs! Was Thomas C. Walker’s father standing nearby, watching the events of the day? How did he feel? Another important story to tell is that General Taliaferro knew T.C. Walker, this son of slaves who went on to accomplish great things. Taliaferro’s legacy includes that fact that he loaned law books to Walker as the African-American lawyer and educator struggled to help Gloucester’s former slaves live free.
We’ve come quite a long way in 150 years, but thoughtless racism is still alive and well. It would do us good to think about our history, especially as we commemorate the Civil War and end of slavery. Let us remember to take a broad view of Gloucester’s significant events and people, so that, as the old Colonial Williamsburg tagline goes, "the future may learn from the past."
Sara E. Lewis