Historian Drew Gilpin Faust Pens Personal and Historical Essay: "Race, History, and Memories of a Virginia Girlhood"

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Race, Virginia, desegregation

Drew Gilpin Faust, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, is a former president of Harvard University, where she is the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor. She is the author of six books, including This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.


The year 1957 was a crucial time in Virginia and in the South generally. Three years earlier, the Supreme Court had struck down school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, and the implications of that decision were beginning to become clear. In September 1957, nine African American students entering the previously all-white Central High School, in Little Rock, Arkansas, were greeted by a segregationist mob supported, per the order of the governor, by the state’s National Guard. President Dwight Eisenhower was compelled to mobilize the 101st Airborne Division to enforce integration and uphold the law. Closer to home, Senator Harry Byrd—who lived just a few miles from the Old Chapel graveyard—had called for “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court’s ruling. Engineering a plan to close rather than desegregate schools, Byrd and his aroused followers were transforming the 1957 Virginia governor’s election into a referendum on race and, in a broader sense, on the morality and legitimacy of the white South’s discriminatory assumptions and practices. In the face of such controversy and opprobrium, the plaque invoked a redemptive narrative of the Southern past, one designed to reassure a society under siege that it was not just right but righteous. It proclaimed a virtuousness fashioned out of a fantastical history, a virtuousness to be reinforced by the generous act of noticing and remembering that the plaque was meant to be.

But why did my grandmother choose this graveyard and this statement to subdue her unease about the challenges to her taken-for-granted world—her unease, I imagine (and hope), about that very world itself? Why a plaque? It wasn’t filling a gaping need. In both its language and its very existence, it protests too much.

Local circumstances had generated an additional motivation. The far end of the cemetery—the land beyond the plaque—had housed graves of enslaved people, though their locations and markers had all but disappeared. As a child, I remember hearing discussions among the adults in my family about how growing demand for graveyard plots had led to a consideration of extending the white cemetery into the area the slave cemetery occupied. This was not understood as sharing—and certainly not as integrating—the space. Instead, the older graves would essentially be erased from the landscape and from the minds and memories of the white church and its members.

But not from my grandmother’s. The puzzling plaque represented her discomfort with (though not, significantly, any overt objection to) a plan to so callously disrespect the dead. She meant to remember and memorialize them with a permanent stone marker that would not rot and disappear. But as a white southern woman imbued with a conventional understanding of the past and its racial practices, she was memorializing a world that had never been. And she was perpetuating a narrative about race that has continued to poison Virginia and the nation more than a century and a half after slavery’s end.

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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