From the History in the States column of the September 2004 Perspectives

In Virginia, Practically Everyone Is a Historian

Brent Tarter, September 2004

Series editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles initiated by the AHA's Task Force on Public History. The series—essentially asking the question, "Who is taking care of history in the states?"—will seek to offer a glimpse into some of the issues, developments, controversies, or opportunities facing history in the United States.

Sometimes it seems that everyone in Virginia is or wants to be a historian. This passionate connection to the past has produced a diverse, even chaotic, array of public history institutions telling a variety of Virginia histories from many angles. The English-language era of American history began in Virginia, as did North American slavery, southern history, the nation's first institutions of representative government, the supply network for a hugely profitable drug trade—tobacco—and with it government intervention in economic activity, and important events of the American Revolution and the American Civil War. Native Americans and Virginians of European origin and of African origin interacted, sometimes violently and sometimes very intimately, to create a rich ethnic and cultural mix that has defined critical elements of the colony's and the state's social and political history. This varied and rich history resonates in nearly every community, producing a lively interplay of antiquarians, genealogists, historians, writers, filmmakers, mythologists, and curiosity seekers who interpret, reinterpret, and misinterpret Virginia history. Some worship and others scoff at its altars, shrines, and legacies; passions about history run high in Virginia.

The Civil War casts a long shadow over the state and fixes in the public mind a familiar set of images of Virginia and its place in the national drama. Re-enactors, writers, producers of films, and tourists visiting Civil War sites bring their own historical interpretation often quite different from those shared by historians inside and outside the academy. Their presence and zeal complicates the work of all historians, but especially of the state's public historians. The Civil War remains a hotly debated war. We all recall the furor over the Disney proposal to develop a theme park adjacent to a Civil War battlefield site in northern Virginia and the controversy surrounding the placement of a statue of Arthur Ashe in the company of statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and other Confederate heroes on Monument Avenue in Richmond. More recently, another debate erupted over a new statue of Abraham Lincoln near the enlarged interpretive center of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. Those episodes exposed intense and conflicting emotions about the Civil War and slavery. Virginians continue to debate who gets to interpret which sites and events of its past.

The state's oldest government history agency, the Library of Virginia (formerly the Virginia State Library), can be traced back to the colonial period. The state's oldest private historical organization, the Virginia Historical Society, was founded in 1831. Many counties and cities have local historical societies or museums, some of which have sponsored respectable local history journals or full-scale local histories of high quality. The municipal government of Norfolk has actually commissioned several scholarly books on the city's history. These organizations or institutions and many others, too, employ historians, archivists, and curators, many of whom have had academic training in history at the graduate level. They are all engaged in interpreting and presenting historical artifacts, images, and information to the public.

By default, not by design, there is no statewide plan or coordination for the public historians in Virginia institutions. They all work independently of one another, and with a few notable exceptions they work independently of the historians at the state's institutions of higher education. The Virginia Association of Museums provides a forum for discussing common concerns, and the directors of the major statewide history organizations meet several times a year to share information and develop partnerships. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, the one statewide institution that has links or potential links to nearly all of them, distributes grant money to support specific projects but does not coordinate or provide direction.

The state government, penny-pinching on cultural and educational spending even in the best of times (which these certainly are not), takes virtually no part in coordinating or directing work at museums, historical societies, libraries, or historic sites. Promoters of tourism do not coordinate their efforts with the historical community, either. Despite its general lack of interest, the state government has undertaken a few significant historical projects. A state commission commemorated the centennial of the Civil War, and others took part in bicentennial observances of the American Revolution, the adoption of the Constitution, and the creation of the Bill of Rights. In some instances those commissions produced enduring scholarly or educational components, such as the Virginia Colonial Records Project, a 1950s collaboration between the Virginia Historical Society, Colonial Williamsburg, the University of Virginia Library, and the Library of Virginia that acquired nearly a thousand reels of microfilm of historic documents from foreign repositories. In 1907 and 1957, state commissions organized commemorations of the first settlement at Jamestown. The 1957 commission constructed the outdoor museum at Jamestown. Jamestown 2007, the state-funded organization in charge of the 400th anniversary commemoration, plans to develop collaborative educational projects and has invited cash-starved societies and museums to cooperate in that event through cost sharing. How much effective partnership that produces remains to be seen.

Such cooperation as occurs between now and 2007 may likely be a one-time thing and not the beginning of a new era of coordinated planning and interpretation. No such group effort followed the 1957 events, no private or public organization has offered to take on the responsibility now, and nobody has proposed a statewide purpose to focus such cooperation. Public historians have not expressed a desire for such coordination. Indeed, some are wary. In a state where historical events often have modern political ramifications, it is unsettling to contemplate working in an environment that might produce or require an agreed to, or official, answer to such emotionally laden question as: Was Thomas Jefferson the father of Sally Hemings' children? Was the Civil War about states' rights or about slavery? Was Reconstruction a good thing or a bad thing? What did the Nazis learn from Virginia's eugenical sterilization program?

The Jamestown commemoration of 2007 will differ in fundamentally important ways from those of 1907 or 1957, which, in substance, although not in scale, resembled the smaller privately sponsored ceremonies of 1807 and 1857. Earlier generations of historians and the public viewed the events of Virginia's formative years from the perspective of the English settlers. The historical narrative was one of heroic conquest of the wilderness leading to representative government, religious liberty, and free enterprise. The ceremonies were celebrations of Anglo-American progress. As is quite clear now, the same events, viewed from the point of view of the Powhatan nation, were anything but heroic. Instead, the narrative was one of invasion and cultural devastation at the hands of a technologically superior alien culture. If viewed from the perspective of persons of African origin, those events present an even less heroic record of kidnapping, brutality, exploitation, and cultural devastation. Leaders of the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and other tribes persuaded Jamestown 2007 to drop the word celebration from its vocabulary, but the word has a life of its own in public discourse. What is the story? Who is to say?

That such questions remain lively debating topics indicates that many of the insights of recent scholarship have yet to take firm root outside the scholarly community. In Virginia, this is perhaps a legacy of one of the state government's ill-starred attempts to promulgate an official state history. Late in the 1940s the legislature created a state textbook commission to supervise the preparation of Virginia history and civics texts. The political commissioners so heavily edited the books that some of the authors dissociated themselves from the volumes that bore their names. As issued, the texts portrayed Virginia as a place where Anglo-Saxon liberty flourished, where Native Americans were either savages or childlike simpletons as episodes in the narrative required, where slaves were the happy beneficiaries of benevolent masters, and where the true patriots were the men who seceded from the Union and fought against it in a Civil War on behalf of states' rights and individual liberty. These textbooks thus transmitted a version of history that exalted white supremacy, military virtue, and states' rights at the very time that the state government was pursuing its policy of massive resistance to desegregation of the public schools.

Academic and public historians have made only a modest headway in combating the legacy of the superficial, incomplete, and inaccurate exposition of American history purveyed by these textbooks with their Orwellian rewriting of the past. Many of Virginia's economic, social, and political leaders, especially those over 30, had imbibed that narrative of American and Virginia history in grade school. Public historians are reminded nearly every day how tenacious that interpretation is as they attempt to explain to visitors to their museums and sites and to the readers of their publications that there are alternative interpretations of the past. Until the residue of that older historical narrative erodes enough to make room for a more complex narrative, public historians in Virginia rightly worry that influential keepers of those old flames may again fan them back into life. Under such conditions, coordination of politically vulnerable public agencies is not likely to be suggested or welcomed by public or academic historians.

Public historians in Virginia and teachers in the primary and secondary schools have been in the forefront of presenting a richer understanding of Virginia's history to the public. The Virginia Department of Education's relatively new Standards of Learning for the social studies at http://www.pen.k12. va.us/VDOE/Instruction/sol.html. eschew the restricted subject content and myopic perspective that the old textbook commission promulgated. If there is to be a greater coordination of educational efforts of all kinds, inside classrooms as well as in historical societies, museums, and other venues, teachers and public historians would no doubt welcome more participation by the state's academic historians. For the time being, a certain democratic anarchy characterizes the public historians and the institutions in which they work in Virginia, and given the contested nature of much of the history of Virginia, it may be a good thing that instead of having enough resources, public historians may accidentally have enough autonomy.

— Brent Tarter works on the Dictionary of Virginia Biography at the Library of Virginia.

Select List of Virginia Historical Organizations, Museums, and Online Resources

Other resources

  • A list of city and county historical societies can be found at http://www.lva.lib.va.us. Click “Who We Are,” click “Directories,” and click “Local Historical Societies in Virginia.”

  • A list of National Park Service sites in Virginia can be found at http://www.nps.gov/parks.html. Click “Parks and Recreation” select “Geographic Search,” and click Virginia on the map.

  • A list of museums in Virginia that are members of the Virginia Association of Museums.