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When a city’s downtown is deserted on a Saturday afternoon, I want to go AWOL, too. That was my reaction after leaving our Richmond, Virginia, hotel to explore the area on foot. The damp, cloudy day didn’t help. Even so, my husband, Bill, and I expected to encounter at least one other human being on the city’s 1.25 mile-long Canal Walk, much touted as a tourist attraction.
The former capital of the Confederacy was the second stop of what I’ve come to think of as the continuing Southern education of two New York natives—my attempt to counter the parochialism we’re sometimes rightly accused of. Despite several consecutive days of rain, Charlottesville was a bright spot on our trip—especially an engrossing day at Monticello, home of the globe-trotting Thomas Jefferson, a botanist, inventor, philosopher, Francophile gourmet and DIY architect who also happened to be our American Founding Father. Stepping into Monticello’s double-height, circular entrance hall, expecting the usual oversized oil paintings and tapestries, I was stunned by the display: a hanging Buffalo hide, animal horns, local maps, art by Native Americans and mastodon bones excavated on the Lewis & Clark expedition that Jefferson commissioned as president.
Churning mud beneath our feet and a cold, wind-driven rain that left us shivering seemed appropriate weather for a tour of the quarters once inhabited by the 130+ enslaved people who worked Jefferson’s 5,000 acres at any given time. The warmth of his book-filled, informal home and the beauty of the University of Virginia campus that he designed along with Monticello contrasted vividly with those dirt-floored cabins and the tales we heard of daily life under a watchful overseer. I was glad that the Monticello Visitor Center exhibits grappled directly with the paradox of Jefferson: noble idealist and “architect of liberty” as author of the Declaration of Independence vs. owner of enslaved people whose labor made possible the success of plantation owners like himself throughout Virginia and the South.
Knowing that Richmond was a state capital and a larger city than folksy-feeling, college-town Charlottesville, we expected some bustle. But it felt almost eerie as we walked alone along the narrow, murky-green canal that dreary afternoon. Eventually we reached a park with a Civil War museum and the crumbling remains of a former, privately owned munitions factory that had been one of the largest in the world. Cannons and other artillery were scattered about, war remnants set like sculpture in a damp field.
When I see a pedestrian bridge, I feel compelled to follow it. One near the park, built over the James River’s churning waters, rewarded. Metal treads told the story of the burning of Richmond—by Southern die-hards, who knew the Union Army, and certain defeat, were fast approaching. That was a shock. Did I once learn this fact in history class? Wealthy property owners stood guard with their dogs as some fellow-citizens chose to lead the destruction of their own city, which strikes me as a civil war within the larger one. The photos along the railing showed Lincoln meeting Richmond’s freed African Americans one day after their city fell. The grateful eyes of the newly emancipated moved me. Ten days later, Lincoln was assassinated.
Walking back from a huge, but mainly empty restaurant that night, we noticed that the streets were at last filling with people. But because it was Halloween, the pedestrian parade consisted of witches, white-faced, black-caped vampires, gypsies, vagabonds, cowboys and what seemed like scores of latex-skinned cat women in tottering heels. Cars driven by costumed revelers and their passengers inched down the streets, happily honking past clubs that seemed to suddenly spring into being, lights blazing crazily and music pouring out.
A block away from our hotel, we noticed a tall man standing alone, wearing an Obama mask, an American flag pinned to his traditional blue suit. “Hello, Mr. President,” Bill said heartily, shaking his hand. “Hello! Will it be Hillary?” the man responded, correctly assuming that anyone who would stop to greet an Obama impersonator would care about the Democrats’ 2016 presidential nominee. We began to chat and, within a few minutes, he pulled off the mask. We stood on that corner for the next hour with that 30-something black man, talking about civil rights, national and local politics, and our lives.
We learned about Troy’s past, which included an arrest many years earlier, and his work post-college as a consultant for elected officials, including a governor. He showed us photos from his professional life—I recognized some of the faces. And he talked about how he won over his wife, now a law student at home in North Carolina, and her dream to work for social justice causes. Spontaneously, Troy set his computer tablet on Skype and called her, introducing us.
During our conversation, the Halloween party-goers continued to stream past on foot and in cars (“It’s a big deal in Virginia and goes on for days,” he said, and I recalled the hilarious “Howl-oween” parade of costumed dogs we had encountered in downtown Charlottesville, and the tradition of kids trick-or-treating at the UVA campus.) At one point, a boy, maybe seven years old, stopped in his tracks with three older companions. “I know you!” he said, pointing to Troy and smiling. “Yes, we met at the Boys Club last time I was in town. You stay out of trouble tonight. And keep those hoodies down,” he said firmly, but kindly. After they went on their way, I remarked to Troy how the boys seemed to listen to him with respect.
Politeness and respect were two qualities that I experienced first-hand on the streets of Charlottesville and Richmond. Twice on a narrow sidewalk, as a few teenagers approached from the opposite direction, they stood aside to let me pass as one of them said in a deferential tone, “Excuse us, ma’am.” I smiled, unused to such courtesy, especially from teens. Swagger and smirking are more typical where I come from. It’s not that I felt uncomfortable—quite the opposite—but I wondered if race entered the picture here, remembering the history of young black males lynched for looking what others deemed “the wrong way” at a white woman. Or maybe their mothers just taught them good manners in the formal Southern tradition.
The night was getting chilly, so eventually we parted. Back in our room, I opened the drapes for the night view. The state capital we would visit the next day seemed to float in the distance. Designed by Jefferson and based on a classical Roman temple, called “the finest, the most noble, and the greatest in all America” by a French visitor in 1796, it was the seat of state government after the American Revolution. Later, it was the home of Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy, a refuge when Richmond was burning—and the legislative setting for Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film “Lincoln.” Twelve floors below our room, a trumpeter played outside a bar until 2 am, missing many notes during his repeated renditions of “When the Saints Come Marching In.”
But that’s the jazz anthem of another Southern city, and for another journey.