RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - After the social unrest of 2020, this year’s Black History Month has a different feel to it, a different mission, per se. The Valentine Museum in Richmond is taking up that mission.
Early last year at the onset of the pandemic, the museum closed off the near 200-year-old studio where Edward Valentine sculpted many Confederate statues in the late 1800s. Over 900 statues now rest silently in the studio, but their message of paying homage to the Confederacy is loud.
The Valentine Museum is now reinventing that exhibit to tell the whole story, not just the grand mythology of the Old South. That mythology was propagated by the statues
Valentine sculpted, playing a key role in disseminating Lost Cause ideology.
“(The Lost Cause) obscured slavery as the actual cause of the Civil War, which of course, it was,” said Valentine Museum curator Christina Vida. “(The Lost Cause) also upheld not only artworks but public policies that advanced white supremacy.”
Statues of Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and Jefferson Davis are sprinkled among the busts and plaster casts.
“This is actually the space where Jefferson Davis came to have his face measured,” said Vida of that statue that would ultimately be erected on Monument Avenue.
The impact of Valentine’s monuments was felt deeply in post-Civil War society, as public art influences public perception and policy.
“It was a time of extreme racism, and it was a time where that racism was absolutely the cultural norm,” said Richmond-based culture writer, Josh Epperson.
Epperson is also helping organize focus groups while serving on the committee for The Valentine Studio Project, which the museum has dubbed the effort to modernize Valentine’s workspace.
“(Valentine) was crafting these statues and getting commissions from people who wanted to celebrate ideas that basically said that one group of people was better than another... and it was worth fighting a war to keep that dominance,” said Epperson.
“We should present the story not only of Edward Valentine and the people who commissioned his art, but also the people who were exploited by the story of the Lost Cause.”
People like Henry Page, an enslaved Black man who served as a coachman for the Valentine family. Valentine sculpted Page smiling, wearing gallant livery of the time.
“Edward Valentine purposely depicts him as that faithful slave, which is one of the tropes of the Lost Cause, that tried to convince people that slavery wasn’t so bad,” said Vida.
The reimagined exhibit will display never-before-seen letters that Page wrote to his estranged family, forcibly separated from him by slavery.
Another work called “Knowledge is Power” exemplifies the caricatures and racist depictions of Black youth, that were popular at the time. A boy is shown sleeping while sitting in a chair, with a book resting on his lap.
“Edward Valentine was creating some sculptures which played into one of the tropes of the Lost Cause, which is young Black youth who might not necessarily exude a sense of education.”
Another sculpture shows a young boy, about six years old. An actual photograph of the child was found in a trove of Valentine’s documents and correspondence, now being reexamined by Valentine Museum historians.
Vida says the boy offered to shovel coal into the studio’s burning stove to help feed his family. Valentine had him pose for a sculpture instead.
Valentine’s works were reproduced and sold, and displayed in countless living rooms across the South, exploiting those African Americans who posed for them.
Now, these same relics will serve as a catalyst for discussions that our country is just beginning to have, like what do to now with Confederate objects, or how the repercussions of slavery are still woven within the fiber of our society through systemic racism.
“People are really interested in confronting the ugliness of these stories,” said Epperson. “It’s extremely uncomfortable.”
It’s the kind of confrontation that Edward Valentine’s great, great nephew Tee Valentine, encourages and is helping design.
Tee now sits on the Valentine Museum Board of Trustees and is excited about the project.
“I think this is a really incredible opportunity and a big part of the city’s healing process as we grapple with a really complicated past,” said Tee.
For example, the museum hopes to incorporate Valentine’s now-fallen Jefferson Davis statue from Monument Avenue as it was left in 2020, covered in graffiti and paint, on its back.
“It’s going to take a long time to move past these narratives and start telling much different stories in the community. But the first step is confronting the old stories and dealing with them straightforward and without hesitation,” said Epperson.
The museum has conducted a survey and hosted multiple focus groups to get insight from the community on how Valentine’s studio should be showcased, and what it should convey to the public in 2021. The goal is for the reinvented studio to open next year.
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