Richmond's Other Heroes: Finding African-American History in the Cradle of the Confederacy

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Finding African-American history in the cradle of the Confederacy

SINCE 1861 RICHMOND, VIRGINIA, HAS BEEN THE CRADLE OF THE confederacy--the city the Rebels held so dear that they preferred to burn it rather than have it fall into Yankee hands. After the Civil War Richmond's leaders rebuilt the city, sprinkling it liberally with tributes and memorials to the Lost Cause. Today Richmond is a magnet for Civil War buffs, who come to visit the Museum and White House of the Confederacy, which has the largest collection of Confederate material in the world; Monument Avenue, a broad thoroughfare lined with allegorical statues of Confederate he roes; and the Richmond National Battlefield Park where visitors can retrace the footsteps of generals Grant and Lee.

But for African-Americans, who make up a little more than half the city's population, the phrase "cradle of the Confederacy" holds scant nostalgia. So it was with some trepidation that I set off on a trip sponsored by the Metro Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau.

I knew it would be worth being there if I could find out more about Richmond's other heroes, those blacks who fought in the Continental Army, built the city's roads and canals, worked as slaves in the city's mills and iron foundries, and labored as domestics in the elegant homes of the city's elite. I wondered whether this part of Richmond's legacy--that of a city made enormously rich off the sale of slaves--would be mentioned on any of the tours I was going to take.

As it turned out, I got a very good dose of this legacy at the Valentine Museum, whose exhibits chart the history of race relations in the city. Most intriguing was the Wickham House, a restored 1812 mansion attached to the museum. John Wickham, the house's original owner, was a wealthy, ambitious lawyer whose fifteen children and thirteen slaves once all lived in the residence.

The Wickhams' tastes bordered on the ostentatious. The dining room and parlors are lushly furnished, the ceilings painted with frescoes, the floors marble. The basement quarters the slaves occupied are cold and damp with stone floors and no furnishings at all except for a few beds made of straw. In a recorded narration a weary slave describes her daily duties for her mistress--rising at dawn, cooking, sewing, washing, nursing, and cleaning.

Not all the city's slaves worked as domestics. Because nineteenth-century Richmond's economy was fueled by manufacturing, it spawned a peculiar form of slavery. Iron masters, tobacco and cotton manufacturers, railroad managers, and sea captains replaced plantation owners and overseers, with slaves making up a disproportionate number of those employed in the city's industries. In some cases this allowed the slaves more independence. Manufacturers often found it too costly to provide housing for company slaves, so many were allowed to choose and pay for their own accommodations.

One of the biggest users of slave labor was the Tredegar Iron Works, whose nineteenth-century industrial park on the James River has been preserved as a national landmark. Built in 1836, Tredegar became the Confederacy's main arsenal. Blacks were generally allowed to do only the heaviest and most dangerous tasks, and they worked fourteen- to six teen-hour shifts. During the Civil War a manpower shortage forced management to allow blacks to work in the less strenuous foundries and machine shops and to receive compensation.

Today Tredegar Iron Works is being converted into a museum whose vast interior and riverfront location make it an ideal spot for community festivals. The day we visited, the Museum of the Confederacy was sponsoring a Southern White House Bazaar, at which local collectors had gathered to sell their wares. I noticed a black woman presiding over a booth advertising the Jackson Blacksmith Shop Museum, which her family runs in Goochland County, about forty miles north of the city. …