One Year After Charlottesville: Telling America's Full History
One year ago, in August 2017, America was justifiably shaken by hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia. While there is no one answer for grappling with these traumatic events, we should realize that the violence surrounding them is partially based on a woeful and often willful misrepresentation of our nation’s history. And too often, the history represented in our public spaces has excluded those whose stories are vital to understanding our full American history.
After Calamity, Forward Movement
While these emblems are still alive and well in our nation, the fight has continued over the past year to tell the full American story—and those efforts are only accelerating. These projects across the country address and correct the silence of our past:
- Washington, D.C., now boasts the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
- In April 2018, Bryan Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative opened the National Memorial for Justice and Peace in Montgomery, Alabama, to document lynching nationwide.
- For the first time in its 336-year-old history, Philadelphia added a statue of a black American, Octavius Catto, outside City Hall.
- In July 2018, citizens in Chicago raised $300,000 in small donations to build a memorial to journalist Ida B. Wells.
- In Richmond, Virginia, local activists are working to turn Shockoe Bottom, once a center of the slave trade, into a memorial focused on justice and reconciliation.
- Nashville’s Clayborn Temple, a key building in the Sanitation Workers’ Strike during the Civil Rights movement, is being revitalized to promote diversity and inclusion among all people.
Places already recognized for their significance continue to explore their full history, too. In fact, they have the opportunity not only to acknowledge the complex and difficult parts of our past, but also to give stories of black excellence and achievement their due.
For example, at James Madison’s Montpelier, not far from Charlottesville, an exhibition called The Mere Distinction of Colour conveys the experiences of enslaved persons who lived alongside James and Dolley. Madison’s personal manservant, Paul Jennings, helped save priceless Gilbert Stuart portraits from the White House as it burned in 1814, eventually purchased his own freedom, helped organize the largest nonviolent attempted slave escape in American history, and wrote the first-ever White House memoir. Now, his contributions are recognized alongside the father of the Constitution, whom he served in bondage.
“African American history, black history, is America’s history, after all.”Helena Doley, owner of Madam C.J. Walker's Villa Lewaro
Elsewhere around the country, grassroots activists are working to save National Treasures such as:
- Villa Lewaro, the estate of Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first self-made female millionaire;
- Musician and activist Nina Simone’s modest birthplace in Tryon, North Carolina;
- South Side Community Art Center in Chicago, where African American artists were given training and a platform from which to grow;
- And Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, New Jersey, one of the last remaining Negro Baseball League stadiums.
And thanks to the generosity of donors big and small, the National Trust recently announced more than $1 million in grants through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to help preserve more such places, like the Wilfandel Club in Los Angeles, Birmingham’s sites of civil rights, the John and Alice Coltrane home in Huntington, New York, and the stories of the Buffalo Soldiers in Yosemite National Park.
Black History Is American History
Ultimately, this work is important because black history—like the history of other marginalized communities—is American history, and all these strands can and should be woven into our national narrative. We can only understand ourselves as a country, and build the democratic future we aspire to, when we have a more complete sense of who we have been over the years, together.