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History through Virginia


So last weekend I was in Washington, D.C. to give a talk at a union conference and then I spent a couple days traveling through Virginia. That part of the trip was funded by grave donations and I assure you that I saw about 3 dozen of America’s most, uh, special people who will be profiled in the future. But that’s not why I write here. I also did a whole bunch of history tourism stuff that I felt was worth a mention.

First, in Washington, I did a quick stop at the National Museum of American History to see a small exhibit. Most of that museum is a disaster, a collection of stuff that is under constant surveillance by right-wingers to make sure that nothing crazy like suggesting there were negative consequences for using nuclear weapons against Japan gets into an exhibit ever again. Between that and the need for corporate funders, it’s pretty awful. But there is quality in the corners. One small exhibit on unpaid women’s housework was good. It’s on the first level, just in a few windows. 99% of the people walk past it to get see some military bullshit. But check it out if you are around. It’s an issue that needs a lot more attention, past and present.

I also stopped at the National Museum of the American Indian to see the “Americans” exhibit, a really great piece on the ways that Native people are portrayed in American cultures as central to what it means to be an American while actually being totally erased from the narrative. So you have the Tomahawk Chop and all sorts of other awful stereotypes, but then have no acknowledgement that Native Americans are still active parts of this nation today. It also had side rooms to explore the legacy and popular portrayal of three critical moments in Native and European history: Pocahontas, the Trail of Tears, and the Little Bighorn. All three–especially the latter two–were very well done. Really great exhibit. I always enjoy that museum and of course the cafeteria is the best place to eat on the National Mall and the only place to get green chile, which for anyone who has lived in New Mexico, is actually all that matters.

In Virginia, it was a bit more of a mixed bag. I stopped at two National Park Service sites I had never visited before. Both were pretty disappointing. I love the NPS in theory but it is so underfunded at a time of a massive devaluing of public resources generally that the difference between this and the private site I visited will soon be stark to all of you. Anyway, the first was the Booker T. Washington National Monument. I don’t particularly like Washington or most of what he stood for, but he was obviously a titanically important figure in African-American history. The site could have done a lot with this, but mostly it was a site about slavery instead of his life. Well, that’s fine. But it’s not a particularly well done site about slavery. The museum is nothing much to speak of. Most of the rest is a “living history” farm, with some farm animals, the site of where the house of the people who owned the young Washington was, and that’s about it except for some nice trails you can walk. Meh. Probably OK for school groups though.

Even more disappointing was the Appomattox Court House National Historic Site. I had high hopes for this. And it should be pretty cool. The house where the surrender took place is there. So are a lot of the other old buildings. It’s fun to walk around. But the entire site is based on “this is where reconciliation started.” And, no. That’s an old-school interpretation that really is a damaging. This is a place whites can go and get off on old Civil War history without actually understanding what the war was about and why it was found. Usually the NPS does a better job with this stuff–see the requirement that visitors at Gettysburg sit through the movie that focuses on slavery before going to jerk off at the Cyclorama. I came away really shaking my head in disappointment.

However, I did decide to walk down to the Appomattox River while I was there. When I got down there, OK, it wasn’t all that interesting but I wanted a bit of a walk after driving a lot and being disappointed with the site. Up on the road, I saw a historical marker. So I decided to check it out. What a bonanza!

So much to wonder about here! What did this guy do to popularize the banjo other than being white? J.E.B. Stuart had a personal banjo picker while he was leading armies? Did someone replace Sweeney in this critical position after he died? Why is this a historical marker? I can say that I did not hunt out this person’s grave because I had better ones to find.

Far, far more positive was my experience at Montpelier, James Madison’s house. Monticello has received kudos for how it has integrated slavery into its interpretation over the past 15 years. I went last year and, yeah, they do a very fine job. But Montpelier simply blows it out of the water. Maybe it’s because it’s less of a mad house out there–though I stumbled on a Juneteenth celebration out there, which led to the following lunch, prepared by community members and which meant it was pretty busy that day.

Under all that is a big piece of fried catfish. To say the least, I did not eat dinner that night. That was also my first ever Juneteenth celebration, so that was pretty cool.

Anyway, I was initially not confident. Leading the tour in our racially mixed group was a older white southern man who is best described as “folksy.” And while this type can tell some stories, I wasn’t real sure they were stories I wanted to hear. When he started, he kept bringing up all the Christian teachers Madison had in his early years, which did not inspire me going forward. But then he started talking about slavery. And boy, did he nail that. He did not let the Madisons off the hook for anything. That was especially true at the end of the tour. See, by the time Madison died in 1836, the old Virginia gentry was not only in debt but also couldn’t grow anything marketable on their lands. Many had invested in the cotton lands of the southwest. Madison and Jefferson did not. Moreover, Madison’s son (Dolley’s, from her first marriage) was a total fuckup and gambled what was left away. Dolley moved to Washington where she was the grande dame of the republic, but without any money. So she started selling all the slaves. The tour guide set this up great, talking about the slaves who had taken care of James as he was dying. Well, Dolley started selling their children, then the servants. And this was powerful because by then, you knew these people. It really got to the rank exploitation behind this whole system. The black members of the tour group were deeply affected, disgusted, and angry. The whites mostly just kept asking inane trivia questions about what in the house was original.

In the aftermath, one black family went up to the tour guide and thanked him very much for how he did that. I never, ever speak during historical tours because having a self-identified professional historian standing around just changes everything, makes the guides uncomfortable, and doesn’t represent the standard interpretation, which is what I am interested in. Plus, it’s the guide’s tour, not mine and when a certain very famous and admirable American dies, I am going to have a fun story to tell about me getting into an argument with his wife when she told me she didn’t like how I was doing my historical tour. I’m not going to be that person. So I didn’t say anything, but I highly recommend visiting.

Below the house, Montpelier had also redone the basement to provide two additional exhibits on slavery, one at Montpelier and one nationally, that were also great. They have won some public history awards over all of this and I can see why. It’s interesting how some of our most traditionally conservative type of historic sites have really come around to embrace an amazingly progressive view of telling stories about the past and genuinely confronting white people on how they continue to profit from the slavery of their ancestors (or other whites if their ancestors were still in Europe) daily. The visitors may tune this out, but you do what you can do and at least some of them are going to pick up some of it.

After spending the night in Roanoke (a lovely town with some enjoyable breweries and amazingly nice weather for a June Virginia day), I went to Richmond, only because it was on the way back to Washington from some graves, but it allowed me to stop at The Answer, which is one of my favorite breweries in the nation. This brewery specializes in IPAs, sours, and sweet stouts and I’d say the latter, they do my favorite in the nation. I should not like a stout that is described as a melted Oreo. But holy moly. It’s really amazing. And you want that 5 oz pour since it rolls in at about 12% ABV.

They also do these weird slushy beers, but I didn’t have any of them this time. The place is owned by a Vietnamese guy, so the food is also fantastic, if the Vietnamese fish cake banh mi is a good example and let me say that it was.

Anyway, that was it for this trip. You will enjoy the graves. Hopefully I can hit the road again soon.

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