It was a spring kind of day this past March when I entered the Capitol building in Richmond Virginia.
There was an exhibit in the capitol’s corridor describing the state’s moment of great crisis. It took you through the events leading up to Virginia’s secession from the Union preceding The Civil War of 1861.
At first Virginia rejected secession. A few days later, however, delegates changed and voted for secession.
These were heavy moments for the thriving citizens of Virginia. Just eighty five years earlier (1776), Virginians were instrumental in helping to create the United States of America.
To secede and leave what its earlier citizens had created was to cloud its finest moment in history, even though those founding fathers left a glaring hole.
And what was that hole?
Slavery. Virginia had built up its slave holding and had prospered in shipping slaves southward. Virginia was afraid that if it remained in the Union, slavery would be abolished, and its economy would be shattered.
A Shock To Come
One of the maps on the wall showed Virginia’s different counties at that time, and the percentage of the total population in each county that was comprised of slaves. This is when I had a surprise.
The second greatest concentration of slaves in Virginia was Amelia County. My wife turned to me and said,” that’s where some of my Irish relatives settled in the seventeenth century.” The records show that “one of them had slaves” by the time of the Civil War. And that the family “was divided over the issue of secession.”
There it was hanging right there on the wall. I hadn’t even planned on visiting that building. What a random event. What a mixed bag. One of the relatives had slaves, most probably didn’t. Some fought on the side of the secessionists, some fought for the Union. How like everyday life that seemed to me. Complicated.
Take The Game Into Your Hands
What do you do when you are faced with a not so easy to understand situation of the past, that’s hard to explain in the present?
For me I try to accept the ambiguity of the past, and at a minimum clarify my own feelings in the present. In other words I try to take the game into my own hands.
So, this is what I think:
No discrimination, no racism,
No secession, no slavery,
No segregation, no rationalization,
No racial slurs.
A few days after this, I was in St. Louis. I was talking to an African American musician, who toured the world with the Gnarls Barkley duo after their hit song Crazy. This musician told me that “young people don’t see race the way you and I do. They don’t appreciate all that we went through to bring about racial change. But at least they’re color blind now.”
What an interesting insight. We’ve gone from slavery to segregation to integration to just being plain color blind in a little less than 150 years. Over time, some issues do get clarified, don’t they?
A good example of this is Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of Alabama segregationist Governor George Wallace. In an inaugural speech her father once declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Under the leadership of Governor Wallace, black civil rights marchers were badly beaten in Montgomery, Alabama on March 7, 1965, now famously known as “Bloody Sunday”.
On that day, peaceful civil rights marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading from Selma to Montgomery. As they did, the Police Chief of Montgomery gave the signal and the marchers were met by attack dogs, billy clubs, police horses, and tear gas. A young African American marcher, John Lewis, now a United States Congressman, was seriously injured, along with others.
But today, Peggy Kennedy Wallace has been ceremonially crossing that same bridge every year for the past five years arm in arm with Congressman Lewis. To Lewis, Wallace Kennedy said on 2009, “I’ve crossed many bridges in my life, and I will cross many, many more. But the most important bridge I’ll ever cross in my life is the bridge I crossed with you . . . .”
She has dedicated her life to undoing what her father had stood for decades earlier. But again, the full story has its own nuances. In the very last years of Governor Wallace’s life, he said he no longer believed in “segregationism.”
To see how these things can finally work out, recently Congressman Lewis was brought to tears when the new Chief of Police for Montgomery, Alabama greeted Lewis and apologized for what his police had done to him and the other marchers decades earlier.
Yes, we’ve all come a long way since the issue of slavery and secession strained the relationship between my wife’s family members in Amelia County, Virginia in 1861.
Does That Make Me Crazy?
I was talking to my wife and son about these experiences. I suggested that next Thanksgiving would be a great time to take our whole family back east to where it all started for their Irish family.
I suggested we celebrate Thanksgiving in Amelia County. Then go on to the Richmond Capitol, and maybe even end up on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Maybe, I should do that for myself. After all, I was born at a time when the bridge was being crossed from segregation to integration. And my grandchildren were born when America had crossed the bridge from full integration to color blindness.
They’ll probably think I’m a little bit crazy if I suggest crossing a bridge in Alabama. They don’t need to cross that bridge, but maybe I do.