Slavery’s blot still stains city, panel says

150 years after the Civil War, racial reconciliation remains elusive in the former capital city of the Confederacy.

By Robert Dilday

Like many American cities, Richmond, Va., has reduced the more visible signs of rancor among different races, but racial reconciliation remains elusive, said a panel of activists and observers of Virginia’s capital.

The panelists shared their views at the close of the May 20-22 annual meeting of the Baptist History & Heritage Society, which focused on the theme, “Faith, Freedom, Forgiveness: Religion and the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconciliation in Our Time.”

The former capital of the Confederacy was an appropriate venue to address themes which continue to plague the nation itself, said John Moeser, senior fellow at the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, who moderated the panelists.

bhhs moeser“There may not be another city in the nation whose history is as deeply troubled,” Moeser said.

In the 19th century, Richmond was one of the largest slave-trading centers in the United States, generating tens of millions of dollars and creating fortunes for some white families.

“It was for the protection of this industry that caused the South to break away and to make Richmond the capital, leading to a war that killed more Americans than any other war,” Moeser said. “But praise be to God, there is another chapter in Richmond’s history, one of the triumph of the human spirit, of emancipation and freedom. This is the chapter we need to discuss more often and with great candor.”

Some of that chapter may be difficult to discern, panelists agreed.

bhhs michael-paul-williams“If Richmond considers itself on a path of reconciliation, it is on a shortcut that it can’t take to get there,” said Michael Paul Williams, a columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “There is less rancor visible now than the past. But lack of overt conflict and rancor doesn’t indicate we have been successful at reconciliation, unless that reconciliation manifests itself as a just and equitable community without the gaping chasm of poverty and the imbalance in education.”

Baptist minister Valerie Carter warned against complacency in the church. “The church is too fluffy in terms of race relations,” said Carter, associate pastor for glocal ministries at Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond.

“We think that if we have more people of color come in we’ve done a great job and been successful. That allows us not to deal with issues,” Carter said. “Just to say we have black people in our church isn’t a way to reconciliation.”

bhhs chambersNeighborhoods that remain segregated are another barrier to reconciliation, said Hank Chambers Jr., a professor at the University of Richmond’s T.C. Williams School of Law.

“To the extent that we try to work close to where we live and attend church close to where we live, our lives are centered around where we live,” Chambers said. “Unless you take care of housing segregation, it will be hard to truly get everyone together. There’s not enough intentionality for people to leave where they are comfortable. Often it’s the schools.”

“We have to think had about where we live,” he said. “Are we getting there? Maybe.”

bhhs valerie carterCarter suggested a vocabulary change when discussing issues of race and justice.

“I don’t really like the word reconciliation, because it implies we were once together and are now coming together again,” she said.

bhhs rob corcoran Rob Corcoran, director of Hope in the Cities, a Richmond organization which advocates for healthy communities, acknowledged that “reconciliation” is a tricky word.

“It’s a journey,” Corcoran said. “We need to see the connection between personal and social transformation. You can’t get to long-term structural change without change in the hearts of people. But you need change in structures to get change in hearts of people.”

In a closing summary, Richmond pastor Jim Somerville offered observations “toward a theology of forgiveness.”

jim somerville“Reconciliation means to become friendly again,” said Somerville, pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond. “Maybe we weren’t friendly in the first place. Maybe we need to become friendly for the first time. How do you do that?”

He suggested four ways:

-- Regard the potential friendship as enriching, not as a mission project.

-- Take the first step.

-- Let go of things like fear, anger, bitterness and resentment.

-- Talk less and listen more.