Beneath the Battlefields

Richmond is still fighting the Civil War. Not along the tired old North-South lines, but on far more subtle fields.

Sorry, Virginia. Looks like you don’t have “the sovereign authority to nullify federal law.”

You might have thought that matter got settled 150 years ago. Actually, it happened this month, when a three-judge panel of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals told Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli that the state lacked standing to challenge the federal affordable health-care act.

The legal language in the opinion is dry. But it maintains a faintly incredulous tone. If Virginia got its way, that means each state “could become a roving constitutional watchdog,” the judges wrote, challenging whatever federal policies it deemed unfair. A lawsuit such as Virginia’s, they wrote, “usurps this sovereign prerogative of the federal government and threatens ‘the general supremacy of federal law.'”

It’s not just Cuccinelli who’s fighting the feds. In the 2011 session of the General Assembly, state legislators proposed several pro-Virginia, anti-federal bills. One would have allowed a majority of state legislatures to repeal federal legislation. Another said Virginia “hereby claims sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States” over all powers not otherwise granted to the federal government. Yet another would have allowed Virginia to explore minting its own money. (All failed to become law.)

The Civil War decided that the nation was, in fact, indivisible. But the debate over the relationship of states to the federal government keeps right on going, especially in Virginia. The big question, says historian Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, is this: “Where does the ultimate authority of the United States lie?… Is it with the nation, or is it with the states?”

Today’s political dialogue may be acrimonious, but it’s nothing compared to the winter of 1861. A meeting room in Richmond was “packed with a lot of smelly men, dressed in wool, yelling at each other,” explains Andrew Talkov, exhibit coordinator for Virginia’s Civil War sesquicentennial at the Virginia Historical Society. The topic: Should Virginia secede?

The conversation was both impassioned and inflammatory. “Because Virginians were so divided … the people at this convention were really trying to convince one another to change their minds,” says historian and author Nelson D. Lankford. Each party said “scurrilous” things about the other, he says.

Initially, much of the Virginia political establishment was “for slavery, for states’ rights and for the Union. That sounds contradictory to us,” Lankford says. But they felt their rights would be better protected in the Union.

On April 4, the convention said no to secession. On April 17, after Fort Sumter, it said yes.

Interestingly, Talkov notes, both sides thought they were protecting what the nation’s founders fought for. The Union, he says, was defending the words of the Constitution. The Confederacy was defending the spirit of the Constitution — the sovereignty of states.

“That’s one of the reasons the Civil War is so charged,” Ayers says: that people sympathetic to the Confederacy and secession also tend to be sympathetic to small government. “Today’s politics are rhyming with the Civil War.”

IT’S NOT JUST state politics. Since the war, regional politics have pitted the city against itself and the neighboring counties. The pendulum of power in Richmond has swung wide, from white to black and back again.

In the 1950s, Richmond saw suburban white flight and growing black political unity.

In 1970, the city annexed 23 square miles of Chesterfield County, tipping the city’s racial majority back to white. (This despite the United States Supreme Court’s deeming the move constitutionally impermissible.)

In 1977, the Supreme Court forced the city to return to a ward-based political system to protect the black vote.

We’ve come a long way, says John Moeser, senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond. “Race always in Richmond lies just under the surface. We by no means live in a post-racial society,” he says. “On the other hand, when you look at our [city] politics today, we, thank goodness, are not experiencing any kind of racial polarization politically.”

Richmond has a majority-white City Council for the first time in a while, but the black community’s fine with it, he observes. Today’s white council members are not the heirs of the old power structure.

Has the pendulum of power come to rest? Perhaps not yet. Or maybe the entire political structure is stalled.

Richmond civic leader and preservationist Mary Tyler Freeman Cheek McClenahan once told the Rev. Ben Campbell, “You know, Richmond is the only place I know where when people say, ‘That’ll never happen,’ they mean it.” Campbell, pastoral director at Richmond Hill, believes that’s the legacy of slavery and racial divides. He feels a cloud of inertia hanging over the city — “unacknowledged invisible forces that stop things from happening.”


Twenty-three percent of Richmonders are officially poor — more than twice the poverty rate in Virginia overall. The Richmond region ranks fifth worst among the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas for access to jobs via public transit. And despite more than a decade of calls for regional cooperation, these problems are seen as solely the city’s.

“People speak in code now,” Moeser says. “They don’t say, ‘Oh my goodness, if blacks come here, then this is all gonna happen.'” Instead, he says, the line is: “‘We’re not real excited about bus lines coming out to this neighborhood, because what that would do is simply bring the city out here.'”

There’s a perception that Henrico and Chesterfield counties, because they’re doing well, don’t need the city, says the Rev. Tyrone E. Nelson. But they do. (Nelson, pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Jackson Ward, is running for the Varina seat on the Henrico Board of Supervisors.) “The truth is,” he says, “Richmond is this region. … When Richmond is strong, Henrico is strong. When Henrico is strong, Chesterfield is strong.”

EARTHWORKS UNDULATE NEXT to the Brook Run shopping center. Cannons rest on Monument Avenue. That’s the familiar detritus of the war.

But it left even more visible scars on the city’s geography.

Richmond was more integrated during the Civil War than it was in the 20th century. In the 1860s, free blacks lived alongside working-class whites and German and Italian immigrants.

After Reconstruction, “we essentially created a system of apartheid,” Moeser says. Political districts, such as Jackson Ward, were drawn to keep black votes in one district and prevent African Americans from having a significant voice.

Consolidation and segregation continued. In the late 1930s, the federal government introduced a New Deal program meant to stem the foreclosure crisis (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Local realtors and bankers evaluated neighborhoods, grading and color-coding them to indicate quality. In Richmond, every black neighborhood — even Jackson Ward, which contained what was called the Wall Street of black America — “was graded D and colored red,” Moeser explains.

The end result was the wholesale destruction of black neighborhoods in the name of progress and urban renewal. Navy Hill was obliterated to make way for Interstate 95. Fulton was demolished. The Downtown Expressway sliced through Randolph and Oregon Hill.

Displaced residents had to go somewhere. Those with means moved into white neighborhoods such as Highland Park and Barton Heights, causing whites to flee. Those without such options moved into public housing.

The culmination of all this, Moeser says, was a social segregation that persists to this day.

Nelson looks at nearby Gilpin Court and sees its residents “segregated on this poverty island.” (Nelson’s church, which was founded in 1867, narrowly avoided the path of destruction for Interstate 95.) Nelson looks at the West End and sees an entirely different Richmond, he says.

Instead of “either chasing each other out, or pushing each other out,” he says, Richmonders need to “be in a place where we are moving together.”

IN RICHMOND, ARE people beginning to listen instead of taking a stand?

At Moeser’s frequent presentations about poverty in Richmond, he has seen more interest in the city’s history from both black and white audiences. “So many people have come up and said, ‘I didn’t know that,'” he says.

Campbell, who’s currently giving a lecture series at Richmond Hill titled, “Richmond’s Unhealed History,” agrees. “I think we’re in a moment where … basically, people are interested,” Campbell says. “They’re curious. They want to know. And the history will be told differently.”

“I can generally say that the Civil War hadn’t been after-dinner conversation” among blacks, says Janine Bell, founder of the Elegba Folklore Society. “Because what’s the Civil War about? Slavery. I don’t care how many times you say states’ rights. States’ rights to do what?”

The trouble is, Bell says, that “everybody talks so easily about slavery.” People intellectualize it, she says, instead of fully considering what it means to be an African brought here and enslaved, and acknowledging the contributions of black Richmonders. Bell sees progress in the city’s recent opening of the Slave Trail and its purchase of the long-neglected African Burial Ground property that had been used for a Virginia Commonwealth University parking lot.

Many Richmonders also forget the staggering number of soldiers who died here, says amateur historian D. Michael Thomas, first lieutenant commander of the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “They know it was bloody, but they don’t have any concept of the depth of human tragedy — the toll, the human toll, for Richmond.”

Within 25 miles of the city lie a full quarter of the 260,000 Confederate soldiers who died in the war, Thomas says. At least 80 percent of them rest in unmarked graves — something the local chapter has been trying to correct. In April, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs said it would not provide military markers for such graves at Oakwood Cemetery, a decision the sons have appealed.

Here’s a question: Is it possible to be proud of your Confederate ancestor and at the same acknowledge the legacy of slavery? “I think absolutely,” Bell says. “There was pain on both sides. Even if that Confederate role and view in present times may be looked at as being wrong … still, there was a family involved, there was commitment involved. There was death involved. There was battle involved.”

Thomas, too, says he’s found common ground in conversations about the Civil War “with people whose heritage is not like mine.” His personal opinion is that “if you could keep the politicians out of things, a lot of this would have been resolved decades ago.”

In the end, hope may lie in Richmonders’ willingness to keep talking. The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar seeks to tell the story from three perspectives: Union, Confederate and African-American. There’s a wall where visitors are invited to share their thoughts on Post-it notes. And on that wall, says Doc Gillespie, assistant manager for visitor services, “we’re constantly accused of being too pro-Confederate, too pro-Union and too pro-African-American. So we must be doing something right.”S


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