Historians and educators share their favorite stories of Richmond

Monday, 28 March 2011

With the approaching 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the Richmond Times-Dispatch recently invited a group of area historians and educators to participate in a moderated roundtable about the importance of history. (Read a transcript and see video from the discussion at TimesDispatch.com, search: history.)
We also asked them to share their favorite tales of Richmond. The following is a sampling of their stories.
Edward Ragan, staff historian, Valentine Richmond History Center, likes the story of Richard Gill Forrester because it shows how Richmond's history is more complex and intertwined than we may think.
Richard was 13 when the Civil War began. He worked as a page in the Virginia Assembly. As soon as that Secession Convention voted to secede, they pulled down the U.S. flag. Richard grabbed it from the trash heap and took it home, kept it tucked it under his bed for the duration of the war. And this was the first flag to fly above the capital at the end of the Civil War. On the morning when Union troops entered Richmond, Richard ran out and raised that flag for just a moment. But we got to see his commitment.
The reason that story is so striking to me is because Richard was both a free black man and Jewish. His father was Jewish, his mother was African-American. He grew up in a Jewish household. He's kosher. Yet at the same time he also participated in the First African Baptist Church.
Ultimately this story shows us that Richmond's story is more than a simple black-and-white story. It's never as simple as we think it is.

S. Waite Rawls, III, president and CEO, Museum of the Confederacy, chose the story of Phoebe Pember, who was the head nurse at Chimborazo Hospital here in Richmond during the Civil War.
One of her patients was a young man who had had an experimental surgery done on his leg to mend it, but it didn't work. He rolled over in his sleep one night and the broken leg bone severed his femoral artery. He started spurting blood and people started yelling.
Phoebe Pember came in and reached into the wound and pinched the artery closed. They called for a doctor, who looked at the young man and whispered in her ear and left.
The young man said to her, "What did he say?" and she said, "It's not good."
He said, "Am I going to die?" and she said, "Yes, you are."
And he said, "When?" and she said, "As soon as I let go of this artery."
He said, "Ma'am, would you say a short prayer for me?" She did.
And then he looked up at her and he said, "Ma'am, it's OK. You can let go."

Jim Triesler, a history teacher at Clover Hill High School and 2007 teacher of the year for Chesterfield County and the region, uses the story of Lee and Grant after Appomattox to teach the value of keeping your word.
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant paroled the Confederate soldiers who were at Appomattox Courthouse, when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865. Lee was also covered by the agreements of the surrender and parole of the Confederate troops.
Lee returned to Richmond to be with his wife. A short time later, Federal troops came to arrest General Lee. When General Grant got word that Lee was going to be arrested, he threatened to resign. Grant was the highest ranking general in the United States Army since George Washington and he threatened to resign because his enemy was going to be arrested!
The reason was that Grant had given his word to Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia when he paroled them at Appomattox. Grant's word meant so much to him that he would resign his commission rather than have it be broken. Lee was not arrested and Grant did not resign.
Many students today think that it is OK to say anything in order to get what they want. Their "word" sometimes has no value or meaning. That is why I think it is so important that we share stories like the one of Lee and Grant. We must help students to value the things that they say to others.

Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and historian of the American South, talked about the period after the war.
"My Richmond story," as you might expect, is related to education. When I am telling visitors to Richmond about what they should make it a point to see, I urge them to visit the site of Lumpkin's Jail, the notorious slave pen known as "The Devil's Half Acre."
Anthony Burns, an escaped slave who was returned to Richmond in 1854, provides a horrific account of his incarceration at Lumpkin's Jail. His description, which also gives voice to the thousands who left no record of their confinement, leaves nothing to the imagination and no question as to how it got its name.
Freedom in 1865 gave birth to new possibilities, and in 1867 the bars on the windows of Lumpkin's Jail were knocked out and cells were removed by black men — former slaves — as they retrofitted it to become a school for freedmen. The school that began at Lumpkin's became Virginia Union University, which opened its doors to all. Virginia Union is recognized nationally for its prominent graduates and their leadership of important and enduring causes.
The history of Lumpkin's Jail and its transformation from "The Devil's Half Acre" to "God's Half Acre" is one I find myself repeating often.
Caroline Morris, Lemon Project Fellow, College of William and Mary found the story of Sunshine Sue while studying the history of radio station WRVA in Richmond.
Mary Workman, known as Sunshine Sue, was the "femcee" of the Old Dominion Barn Dance radio show in late 1940s and 1950s at the height of Harry Byrd's Virginia. Her stage was at the Lyric Theater, which was just uphill from the General Assembly Building and right across from the Governor's Mansion.
They all held their stages during the day. Hers was at night. And her stage had the biggest audience.
So even in Harry Byrd's Virginia, where it looked like a bunch of very upper crust elite men held all the cards, there are other ways of playing that game, and Mary Workman found a way to carve out a successful career and reach listeners all over the world through the Armed Forces Radio Network and through NBC.

Christy Coleman, president and CEO of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, recalled the murder of George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of American Independence and the first professor of law at the College of William and Mary, which was the first law school in North America. Thomas Jefferson was among his students.
A Colonial Williamsburg podcast and website tell the story:
George Wythe's murder, or alleged murder, took place in Richmond in 1806. His grandnephew, George Wythe Sweney , was accused of murdering Wythe and a young mulatto named Michael Brown.
Wythe, 80, had written his will in favor of Sweney, but he also gave generous bequests to a freed woman, Lydia Broadnax; a freed man named Benjamin; and the freed boy, Michael. All of them lived with Wythe in Richmond.
A ne'er-do-well, Sweney had forged checks against Wythe's accounts to cover pressing debts. Hoping to avoid detection and inherit his great uncle's entire estate, he poisoned strawberries or coffee eaten by Wythe, Broadnax and Michael Brown. Michael died within days. Broadnax recovered. Wythe endured two weeks of agony, but as he lay dying, Sweney's forgeries were discovered, and Wythe revised his will.
A grand jury indicted Sweney for murder, but Sweney went free, because the evidence against him was circumstantial. No witness was able to testify that he saw Sweney poison the food. Broadnax was thought to have been in the kitchen when the food was poisoned, but she was not allowed to testify against a white person in court.
Wythe is buried at St. John's Church in Richmond, the church in which Patrick Henry made his "Liberty or Death" speech.

Elvatrice Belsches, an independent historian, has chronicled the history of early blacks in medicine, dentistry and pharmacy in Richmond and beyond. One of her favorite characters is Dr. Sarah G. Jones, 1866-1905.
When she graduated from medical school at Howard University in 1893, she took the boards and subsequently became the first lady of any race to be granted a license to practice by the State Board of Medicine. That's a fact that isn't commonly known in the state.
After her husband followed in her footsteps, they, together with a group of professionals started the Richmond Hospital and Training School for Nurses in 1902. That hospital continues more than 100 years later as Bon Secours Richmond Community Hospital.
What people aren't cognizant of, she gave so much to the community that she passed away partly from being overworked. She saw people at three different offices every day. She would get in her buggy and go from Oregon Hill to Jackson Ward to Church Hill. In addition to that, she had a free clinic at least once a week for women and children. She had both black and white patients.
Why did they feel the need to start a hospital? One reason was to eradicate health-care disparities in African-Americans. Another was that those black health-care professionals didn't have a place to hone their medical skills. They weren't allowed to practice in the majority hospitals. It provided a place for professional development and a continuum of care.

Thelma Williams-Tunstall, director, Teaching American History Academy, Richmond Public Schools, said she appreciates the story of Maggie L. Walker, the pioneering banker whose home in Jackson Ward is a National Park Service Historic Site. In 1903, Walker became the first black woman in the nation to charter a bank, the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank.
It showed how a woman during that period in history, a black woman, introduced herself to a life that would be different than she had experienced. She learned about how to handle money. ... She wanted to change things and always make them better for her family, her friends, and her city. She did that by setting up insurance and the penny savings bank and she motivated people to follow their dreams.
Her house at that time was a key place in the black history of Richmond. As she got older and had trouble walking, she put an elevator in, and that was an amazing thing for that period of time.
Her story not only zeroed in on women, so many of whom were left out, but (it also) made them see if this lady could do it, anybody could do it. Even at the point of using a wheelchair, she still went around and did what she needed to do.


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