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Repressing Repugnant Heritage: Place, Race, and Memory in Shockoe Bottom

lumpkin-jail dig

Excavations at Lumpkin’s Jail in Shockoe Bottom (image James River Institute for Archaeology)

Richmond, Virginia’s Shockoe Bottom is on first glance a prosaic if not unappealing void.  The checkerboard of parking lots and deteriorating buildings became home to a farmer’s market along Shockoe Creek in the 18th century: the core of Richmond’s earliest urban plan, Shockoe Bottom’s 17th Street marketplace was ringed by food wholesalers, Tobacco Row warehouses, restaurants, manufacturing, Main Street Station, and residences, including the city’s oldest surviving structure, the circa 1740 Old Stone House now home to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum.  But much of the farmer’s market business has declined and food wholesaling transformed since World War II; in 1958 the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (Interstate 95) sliced through the middle of Shockoe Bottom; the cigarette companies abandoned Tobacco Row in the 1970s; and most trains stopped running in 1975. Read the rest of this entry

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Roadside Rebels: Heritage Theatre and the Confederate Flag

In 1913 a Confederate veteran posed for this picture alongside the "conquered banner" (image from Library of Congress).

In 1913 a Confederate veteran posed for this picture alongside the “conquered banner” (image from Library of Congress).

Last weekend a Confederate battle flag rose alongside Interstate-95 in Chester, Virginia.  Chester is just south of Richmond, which is surrounded by Civil War landmarks including more than 30 preserved battlefields (e.g., New Market Heights and Chimborazo Hospital), the White House of the Confederacy, and the phalanx of Confederate heroes memorialized on Monument Avenue.  Planted by the Virginia Flaggers, the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia provides travelers a passing glimpse of America’s reduction of the Civil War to theater.

It was optimistic if not disingenuous for Free North Carolina to suggest that “The flag will serve to welcome visitors and commuters to Richmond, and remind them of our honorable Confederate history and heritage.”  The Virginia Flaggers repeated similar stale platitudes when it reduced the Chester flag to an homage to Confederate heritage, arguing that “Our battles are all defensive…in defense of the honor and good name of our ancestors, and against actions taken to dishonor them and desecrate their monuments and memorials.”

A 1907 Confederate reunion in RIchmond paraded along Monument Avenue in front of a Confederate flag (image from Library of Congress).

A 1907 Confederate reunion in Richmond paraded along Monument Avenue in front of a Confederate flag (image from Library of Congress).

On the one hand, the problem is not with the flag itself:  the Confederate flag could be an enormously productive symbol to discuss one of the nation’s most complicated historical moments.   On the other hand, it is naïve to suggest that reducing Confederate heritage to this symbol—and a clumsy theatrical event along I-95—can illuminate the war’s historical and moral contradictions.  Rather than honor the many people who fought and died for the lost cause, flag-waving performances hazard reducing historiography to mere emotional provocation.

Ultimately the Chester flag is barely even visible from the interstate, but the public theater may have become more consequential (and self-defeating) than the flag display itself.  After first decrying the placement of a flag in plain view of countless travelers in his wonderful Dead Confederates blog, Andy Hall conceded that the semi-secluded location made it a much less divisive symbol (see images of the flag in the Richmond Times-Dispatch).  By then, though, the flag’s installation had been reduced to media theatre that reduced heritage to shallow talking points about honor and enslavement. Read the rest of this entry