Letter from the President
When History Angers
By Charles F. Bryan, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer
Sometimes events shine a revealing spotlight on the way history is interpreted. One recent such occasion was the controversy
over the statue of President Lincoln and his son, Tad, which was erected near the National Park Service's Civil War Visitor
Center at the site of Richmond's Tredegar Iron Works. The statue commemorates Lincoln's visit after Richmond burned at
the end of the Civil War. It marks a dramatic event in the city's history and serves as a symbol of the postwar reconciliation
that the president intended.
So it was on a beautiful April afternoon that a large, enthusiastic crowd gathered for the unveiling of the statue. But not
everyone was happy. In the distance, protesters waved Confederate flags. A plane overhead towed a banner proclaiming
"Sic Semper Tyrannis" ("Thus Ever to Tyrants"), the Virginia state motto and the words shouted by John Wilkes Booth
after he shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater. One man held up a sign that warned "Don't mess with my history!"
"Messing with history," however, is precisely what we do at the VHS. An honest look at history requires not just
celebrating uplifting memories but also subjecting all of the past, including its unpleasant aspects, to the full light of scrutiny.
That can be troubling to some people. Even the uplifting parts can cause controversy! It was apparent from the unveiling
ceremony that what was uplifting for some—recalling Lincoln's stirring words—was not at all appealing to the protesters.
In recent years mainstream historical interpretation has also tried to include the perspectives of all groups excluded
from the story in past generations. But showing history from many perspectives can be difficult. It certainly makes the
jobs of those of us at the VHS more challenging. That can be a good thing, though, if it produces a more balanced result.
The eminent historian John Hope Franklin wrote that "explaining history from a variety of angles makes it not
only more interesting, but also more true. When it is more true, more people come to feel that they have a part in it.
That is where patriotism and loyalty intersect with truth." Franklin could have added that sometimes history can
create angst and even anger. Despite that, we should not back away from trying to make "my" history and "your"
history into "our" history.
Posted June 2003
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