Christy S. Coleman, a former costumed interpreter and later director of African-American presentations at Colonial Williamsburg, is the new president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. A Hampton University graduate, she was previously president and CEO of Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the largest institution of its kind in the nation.
Q: As an African-American woman, do you feel you are setting an historical precedent?
A: I don't know if I'm setting an historical precedent — that'll be for others to judge.
First and foremost, I'm a museum professional. And without a doubt this is an interesting position, especially being in Richmond, where the Confederate history is so much a part of a lot of people's understanding, allegiance, family history and so forth. My job is to broaden the scope of how we look at the Civil War as a whole and its impact on everyone involved.
Q: How did friends or colleagues react to your choosing to take on this position in Richmond?
A: [A lady in the neighborhood park] asks, "What's a Midwesterner doing with a Civil War museum?" That was the question. Exactly how she phrased it. And I said, "Well, I am a Virginian, I was raised in Williamsburg, and I'm a Florida native, that's my birthplace. So I get this history. It may not be the perspective most people think, but I do get this history. And I expect to learn a lot more about it."
I asked one friend, an African-American businessman here, "What do you think about this? Am I walking into something here that could get ugly? And he said, "Christy, I don't think so. I think you're probably the best thing that could've happened to this place."
Q: What's your take on the proposed splitting up of the Museum of the Confederacy?
A: I don't have an opinion about that. I really don't. That's their issue, and it doesn't have any impact on the American Civil War Center at all as far as I'm concerned.
Q: How will the national experience from 1961 to now inform the way we look back at 1861-1865 from the Sesquicentennial year of 2011?
A: Clearly you have to deal with that to a certain degree, that whole notion of the noble Lost Cause is gone completely out the window. I don't think anybody is looking at addressing it that way anymore. And so that may anger some people. But the reality is, this was a very, very complex war for a variety of reasons.
Certainly we'll be looking more at African-Americans being very involved, as we were not in 1961, and quite frankly there were other social dynamics going on in Virginia in 1961. African-Americans weren't in the picture, and we certainly needed to be.
Q: Lincoln walked through a still-smoldering Richmond, with his son Tad, and didn't sit on a bench. Is the statue at the adjacent national battlefield parks center a kind of symbol of how the interpretation of history gets conflated with sentiment?
A: I know that people wanted to jump up and down about it, about Lincoln being here. I don't know what message is intended [by the statue]. People are still very angry, quite frankly, that there are Confederate generals on Monument Avenue. … One person asked me, "Would the Germans have Hitler on their main streets?"
[The Monument Avenue statues] are statements of memory, and you may not like that memory or the implication of that image, but it is what it is, and it can be very informative if you let it, without turning you into a bitter despot.
Q: Are you a Pistons or a Wizards fan, and how do you think they'll do in the playoffs?
A: [Laughs] Well, I gotta say I'm a big Pistons fan, but I'm a Washington Redskins fan, so there you go. I was raised on the Skins. I've gone to the Lions game and done my thing, but I gotta go with the Skins. But the Pistons are definitely my basketball team. From back in the days of the bad boys, with Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer, and the crew.