Council for America's First Freedom
A rendering of exhibit space in the new First Freedom Center
It’s been a long time in coming, this recognition in Richmond of the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom, penned by Thomas Jefferson and muscled along by George Mason and James Madison, to form boilerplate in the U.S. Bill of Rights. The document enshrined principles of the European Enlightenment that migrated to these shores and took root here — at just the exact right time.
The Council for America’s First Freedom formed in Richmond in 1984 to prepare for the 1986 bicentennial of the Jan. 16, 1786, ratification of the Statute. That effort went through a number of plans and iterations, but, on Friday, on the anniversary date, the First Freedom Center will open within the Residence Inn by Marriott Richmond Downtown. The public opening is set for 3 p.m. at 14 S. 14th St., after a commemoration by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones.
The site at the corner of 14th and Cary streets has for decades served as nothing more noble than a surface parking lot. Until now, the momentous event that occurred there – one of the most important in Richmond’s past – needed expounding upon. The site was marked for a long while by a tombstone-like structure installed in 1915 at the behest of the Daughters of the American Revolution. First Freedom painted the main quotation from the Statue on an eastern-facing wall; the meat of the matter, if you will.
" ... no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities ... "
In language far less eloquent, this means a citizen may practice any religion, or none, and not be forced to kowtow to anybody in matters of faith; furthermore, that there's no litmus test of religious beliefs to determine if you're worthy for public office. Jefferson and his colleagues had foremost in their mind the centuries of strife that had afflicted Europe and the Mediterranean with matters of religion as a chief cause. They intended to build into the new country this radical notion of toleration. Thus, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was ratified in the temporary Capitol in Richmond.
A wooden facsimile of the warehouse that the Virginia legislature used as temporary chambers was placed by the Council upon the old Liberty Press building (demolished 2008). I get into the history of that structure here.
By July, says the Valentine’s Bill Martin, the Council will, in the brusque legalistic term, be “subsumed” by the museum. "They'll become part of the Valentine family," is the phrase he prefers. An endowment fund within the Valentine's greater endowment will support the basic functions of the Center, to include programming and a staff. “All the final figures of this aren’t in,” Martin says.
Most of the other fundamental aspects – such as keeping the lights on and providing rest rooms – are part of the hotel. “It’s a pleasure to have partners to whom this site means as much as it does on a real level,” Martin says. The Valentine will take on the stewardship of the site. Through this, the Statute and its framers will be recognized, but also those who’ve contributed along the way to realizing a physical representation at this important Shockoe intersection.
The arrangement came out of discussions between the Valentine — amid the throes of its own massive makeover — and the Council, which had approached other institutions for collaboration. But the Valentine's business is Richmond history and it already fields a robust assortment of talks and tours. The "stewardship" of the First Liberty site seemed appropriate.
This merging of the Council into the Valentine will include three Council board members joining the museum's, where two are already simultaneously serving, and a Council staffer – who’ll likely be the face greeting people at the front desk. The public will see exhibits pertaining to the Statute and its dramatic story that is thematic in the larger tapestry of the nation, but also become acquainted with the tremendous amount of history on view within easy walking distance.
“We will certainly build programming around the First Freedom,” Martin explains. “One of the great things about it is that we do the walking tours and this is at the center of all those hotels, and allows us a place to begin offering our programs and a possible direction for future Community Conversations." Quite frankly, you can’t really tell the city’s complete story without understanding the faith communities that have been a huge part of people’s lives. As we do with all our programs, we connect major themes to contemporary issues.”