What a difference a couple of generations can make.
When the 100th anniversary of the American Civil War rolled around in 1962, much of the nation was fully embroiled in one of the most significant -- and long-overdue -- turning points in our collective history as a nation. The Civil Rights movement marked an era where the promises behind the Civil War and the subsequent freedom of four million black slaves and freemen began to materialize.
That didn't stop a slice of the population from having a very different sort of celebration.
The anniversary party they threw was a contentious, self-congratulatory one -- largely organized by and for a generation of whites deeply rooted in their own narrowly focused narrative of states' rights and military heroism.
Fast-forward 47 years to a gathering of about 150 Richmonders at the University of Richmond's Jepson Theatre. "The Future of Richmond's Past," UR President Ed Ayers told the group, was the first of several such community meetings planned as a lead-in to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
But this anniversary promises to be one where multiple perspectives are shared, where a variety of narratives are told, and where the Confederate flag-waving will be kept to a minimum. That speaks volumes about the journey the Richmond region has traveled over the past five decades.
The presence of three African-American women at the table during the introductory panel discussion also spoke volumes. Or the fact that at least three of the eight institutions represented in the conversation were lead by people born north of the Mason-Dixon line. Including a Canadian-born African-American.
"I knew about Richmond's past before I knew about its present," Ayers said in his opening remarks. Ayers could have been speaking of many of Richmond's old guard, the traditionalists who continue to resist change not only out of habit, but also because they genuinely have no context with which to imagine a future different from the past.
Perhaps these community discussions -- which are bringing together the new presidents of three Richmond universities, a host of public officials, representatives of Richmond's faith communities and historical institutions, and everyday residents -- will begin to give voice to those across the region who not only imagine, but are actively building, a different future.
Unfortunately, the first portion of the program didn't lend itself to much collaborative engagement or visionary conversation. One by one, the representatives of eight of the region's brightest historical gems spoke. For six, eight, ten minutes. In what began to feel like a forced march through institutional missions, community partnerships and Civil War related programs.
I almost wept with joy when Bill Martin of the Valentine Richmond History Center said, "For the next ten years, we won't be doing the Civil War." Instead, he said, the Valentine will tell the story of the history that paved the way for that conflagration -- like the War of 1812 -- and the long struggle toward civil rights that followed it. "Richmond has the opportunity to have that further conversation," he said.
Tactically, each organization had interesting things to share. I learned volumes about the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar's educational outreach, and how the Richmond Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau is helping develop a 14-state mapping project that hits all the historical sites along historic US Route 1 from Canada to Key West. I was glad to hear the energy in the voice of the new director of the Black History Museum, and chuckled (not as loud as many in the room, mind you) when the new director of the Virginia Historical Society opened his remarks by saying, "I promise not to try to sell you a snuggie or a shamwow."
But for anyone looking for the opening of the conversation to be a bang, a home run, an invitation to join the region on a spectacular journey to a different sort of tomorrow, well... not today. Today was about today.
Everyone recognized the need for something different. No one proffered a strong vision for addressing it.
"The city has been really good about telling the story of things we're proud of," said Rachel Flynn, director of community development for the City of Richmond. "Part of the Shockoe [Bottom development proposal] effort is whether we can tell the story of things that are painful."
"Until we began to embrace the contradictions, and celebrate and enjoy the angst of the contradictions" of Richmond's history, we won't move forward, the Valentine's Martin said.
Part of me was delighted to hear more people articulate those basic truths. We need more people engaged in these conversations, and different voices at different tables sharing the story of their Richmond. Dialogue and shared engagement are a powerful catalyst for change.
And yet another part of me wonders when we'll move from articulation to action.
"If you just sell history, you will not survive," the visitors bureau's Jack Berry told the crowd. If we keep talking about our future, all we'll have is history.
Here's hoping the next conversation shifts gears into creating a community vision, or putting energy behind real effort to change the region's future. Right now (and with apologies to U2), we're feeling a bit stuck in a present that we can't get out of.