Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Interview with Christy Coleman

I first had the pleasure of meeting Christy Coleman when she took over as president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, where I was working at the time.  For those of you who may not know her, Christy S. Coleman oversees a staff of nearly 20 full- and part-time employees at Historic Tredegar, whose mission is to tell the whole story of how the Civil War still shapes the United States. She began her career as a living history interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, where she served in many capacities until 1999. From 1999-2005, Coleman served as president and CEO of the nation's largest African American museum, TheCharles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. During her tenure, the museum's membership grew from 3,500 to more than 15,000. Coleman has written a number of works for the museum field as well as historic drama for screen, theater and on-site programs. She was raised in Williamsburg, Virginia, and received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Hampton University. I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Christy and getting her thoughts on the sesquicentennial and various and sundry other matters of interest. Enjoy!

JP: I’d first like to get your assessment on how the Sesquicentennial commemoration is coming along so far? Are there any areas of improvement that you think should be emphasized more over the next few years?
CC: What I find most compelling about the Commemorations of the Sesquicentennial is the intent of balanced programming in most state-wide observances.  Because of these efforts, audiences are learning more about the intersection of politics, social constructs and personal decision.   With this is a seemingly greater respect for the roles of all involved. This is healthy and important for the nation as we continue to grapple with elements of the collective past that cause division. However, local events tend to be more traditional in approach-- meaning the focus remains on specific military action with complete avoidance of social or political issues. More often than not, these local events are products of various heritage groups and local historical societies.
Considerations of military campaigns and the societal impact of those battles is another area that is remarkably different than in years past. While there certainly are traditional reenactments taking place—the inclusion of United States Colored Troops, discussions about self-emancipators (Contrabands) and the home front, along with the course of battle are very encouraging.

In the closing years of the commemorations, a shift to discussions of legacies would be wonderful—however I do not expect that to be a part of national conversations. Five years is a long time to commemorate anything and attention spans rarely stay fixed on an idea or concept as diffuse as “legacies of war.” But one can always hope! Perhaps the most disappointing element of the Sesquicentennial is that there was no national commission formed—instead the Smithsonian Institute’s museums have served as the conduit for programs and exhibitions focused on the war.
JP: In 1994 you were involved in a very controversial re-creation of a slave auction while working at Colonial Williamsburg. Do you think that the public discourse over race and slavery had changed in the past 18 years? Do you see any room for similar events during the Sesquicentennial?

CC: I continue to be fascinated that there is still interest in the Estate Sale/Slave Auction program.  I think the larger question is why.  I suppose the answer lies in the fact that improvements with interpretation of slavery at the nation’s museums and historic sites has occurred, however, there are still far too many organizations that continue to struggle with how best to address the subject.  I would argue that at the root of this interpretive challenge is the fact that we as a nation have not fully addressed very complex racial issues. In fact we tend to avoid them or use diversionary tactics, often refusing to acknowledge that the issues exist at all.
Over the past eighteen years, I have attended and presented at a number of workshops and symposia on this subject and invariably the conversion is the same.  Who is doing “good” slavery interpretation? Can we replicate it? What resources do we have to introduce it? Are those resources enough? Will the public accept it? How do we prepare our docents and staff? How do we avoid controversy? The answer to each of these is greatly dependent upon the level of risk tolerance or aversion within the institution.

What I have observed thus far during the Sesquicentennial (which admittedly is limited to the work of various National Park Service sites and mid Atlantic organizations) has been a series of lectures or small exhibitions related to slavery at a particular location.  There has been very little in terms of the work of the black abolitionists and their allies to press the former Republican Party to take an emancipation platform and their ongoing efforts to help self-emancipators in the chaos of war. But the last three years of the commemoration are full of opportunities for interpretation at various sites, starting with the official Emancipation Proclamation and the formation of the USCTs.
JP: What in particular draws you to the study of history?

CC: I have always loved history, particularly social history. I have been fascinated by the lesser known stories, the little nuggets of personal experience that can illustrate larger truths. But I have never been interested in being an academic historian. Instead I have chosen to be in public history which involves engaging historians on critical ideas while simultaneously helping the public explore the complexity of the historical narrative—regardless of era.  Being party to those moments of illumination that visitors experience are very gratifying, because I clearly understand that what we do as public historians is help our visitors navigate history (the facts), heritage (beliefs and traditions) and memory (family connections) to come to a deeper level of engagement with the past.

JP: Do you have a favorite Civil War book?

CC: Not really—only because each new book that I read, opens a new area of consideration.  I do have a few favorites for widely different reasons. Among the favorites are :  The Fiery Trial (Eric Foner); Mary Chestnut’s Civil War (ed. C. Vann Woodward); Bloody Crimes (James Swanson); Richmond Burning and Cry Havoc (Nelson Langford); The Negro in the Civil War (Benjamin Quarles) and Battle Cry of Freedom (James McPherson).  There are so many others that I have read and enjoyed—but again, each of these is compelling history and have formed a structure that informs other study.
JP: What can visitors to the American Civil War Center expect to see as the Sesquicentennial continues?  

CC: We are doing considerable preservation work at Historic Tredegar to ensure that the legacy of this important industrial site is here for generations. In addition, we are building new facilities and exhibits that will enable us to showcase more elements of the history of the war through exhibits and programs.
[NOTE: I should also mention that in a few short days Christy’s crew at Tredegar will be staging "American Séance," their original theatrical production that will run Oct. 29 - Nov. 2. Visit for details and to buy tickets. Performances will be at 7 and 8 p.m. Cost is $10 for adults and $5 for students.]

Many thanks to Christy for her time and thoughts!


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this interview! I did a phone interview with Ms. Coleman years ago about her work at Williamsburg, when I was concentrating on the use of archival materials as underpinnings for interpreting controversial subjects at historic sites. I still often think of the tremendous courage and outstanding professionalism that it took to perform the reenactment of the slave auction. I agree with her observation above that our ongoing fascination with that tells us more about the unfinished business we have yet to tend to as a nation.