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StoryCorps hopes to reconnect a divided America, selecting Richmond as its starting point

Renowned public service organization calls on Virginians of differing perspectives to record conversations for inclusion in the library of congress amid America’s crisis of polarization 

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StoryCorps, the groundbreaking national nonprofit dedicated to recording, preserving, and sharing the stories of Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs, launches One Small Step, a multi-year national effort to begin to mend the fabric of a country at the breaking point, today in Richmond.

The organization, in collaboration with local media, political, religious, and community organizations, is calling for Richmond residents to participate in 40-minute, one-on-one conversations with strangers, to share about their lives, and, in turn, to help people get past the labels of “Republican” and “Democrat,” “liberal” and “conservative.”

“Our research shows there is something special about Richmond. Even amid a contentious election year, we believe Richmond residents can show the rest of America that we can once again be neighbors and communities if we have the courage to listen to one another,” said StoryCorps Founder and President Dave Isay. “Every day brings new evidence of how frustrated, angry and disconnected from each other Americans feel. One Small Step aims to remind people of the humanity in all of us, and that it’s hard to hate up close. We believe Virginians can model this change.”

By bringing together strangers of divergent perspectives to have courageous and meaningful conversations about their lives, One Small Step helps to decrease feelings of contempt across political divides, allowing Americans to see one another as human beings.

StoryCorps has developed the initiative over the past three years with the input of scientists, researchers and psychologists. Conversations recorded for One Small Step are not about politics, but rather about who we are as people, what we care about, and our dreams for the future. Every interview becomes part of American history at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress (with participant permission).

Richmond is one of four cities in which StoryCorps is anchoring One Small Step; the others include Wichita, Kansas; Birmingham, Alabama; and Shreveport, Louisiana. The organization conducted polling and other research, including a pilot in Richmond in partnership with VPM and determined these cities were particularly likely to carry out the initiative successfully, as residents expressed exhaustion with political divisions and also a willingness to listen across them.

StoryCorps first piloted One Small Step in 2018-19. In the time since, data have shown a widening chasm between Americans. A 2019 study showed that about 40 percent of people view the other party as “downright evil”; one in five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human”; and about 20 percent of Democrats and Republicans think the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition were dead.

One Small Step is made possible by the generous support of the Fetzer Institute, Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg’s The Wunderkinder Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Charles Koch Institute. StoryCorps thanks these donors for their commitment to this project and to bridging divides in America.

To participate, just click here.

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Downtown

No more Confederate flags at Hollywood Cemetery

Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, a longtime shrine of the South and home to thousands of Confederate graves, has quietly banned the flying of Confederate flags.

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Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, a longtime shrine of the South and home to thousands of Confederate graves, has quietly banned the flying of Confederate flags.

Visitors first noticed the absence of the flags in summer 2020, when anti-racism protests rocking Richmond and much of the U.S. often targeted rebel symbols. Two people familiar with the cemetery said then they understood that Hollywood had taken down the flags, widely seen as symbols of racism, temporarily to remove potential vandalism targets.

Two years later, Confederate flags that were once common at the historic private cemetery are still gone.

It turns out the cemetery’s board of directors adopted a formal flag ban in 2020 – with no public announcement.

“Hollywood does not have an established practice of publishing policies and broadly disseminating them when they are adopted by the board,” said Hollywood spokesman Matt Jenkins, a Richmond lawyer and member of the cemetery’s board. “We are not a public body.”

Jenkins provided the Virginia Mercury a copy of the flag policy, dated July 2, 2020.

It says in part that “against the current backdrop of intentional acts of vandalism and destruction of property, Hollywood’s board has removed from public view all flags of the Confederacy in the interest of protecting and preserving the entirety of the cemetery’s grounds.”

Jenkins declined to say if the ban is permanent. “It (the policy) says what it says. I’m not going to use the word ‘temporary’ or ‘permanent.’ “

Confederate statues on and near Richmond’s Monument Avenue began coming down in 2020, some toppled by protestors and others removed by the city.

The 135-acre Hollywood Cemetery, named for its abundant hollies, lies along the James River next to the Oregon Hill community. Founded in 1847, it is owned by the Hollywood Cemetery Co., a nonprofit corporation. Still a functioning cemetery, Hollywood operates much like a park, welcoming visitors who stroll up and down its hills to view solemn and artistic grave markers under gorgeous oaks, tulip poplars and cypresses, some of which predate the Civil War.

Hollywood is the resting place for two U.S. presidents, James Monroe and John Tyler; Confederate President Jefferson Davis; several Virginia governors; and other dignitaries.

Hollywood bills itself as “one of the most historic and beautiful cemeteries in the United States.”

Among Hollywood’s most striking features are its Confederate graves and memorials, which include a 90-foot-tall granite pyramid.

Virginia Commonwealth University historian Ryan K. Smith said Hollywood used to seek an elite, White clientele. The Confederate flag ban, he said, could help Hollywood move past those racist roots and appeal to a more diverse public.

“They have been worried, and I think rightfully so, about vandalism,” Smith said. “I think Hollywood is also trying to position itself for newer audiences going forward than it cultivated in the past.”

Smith’s 2020 book “Death & Rebirth in a Southern City” examined the religious, racial and Confederate history of Richmond’s cemeteries.

“I think (the ban) is a big deal because it shows just how far public perception against the Confederate flag has turned,” Smith said.

There are several flags of the Confederacy, but the most-recognized and most controversial by far is the Confederate battle flag. It features a blue, star-studded, diagonal cross on a field of red. Though some have defended the flag symbolic of southern heritage, it has long been waved by segregationists and White supremacists.

Word of the ban angered Andrew Bennett Morehead of Hanover County, who had put up and maintained Confederate flags at Hollywood in recent years.

“This is absolutely news to me,” said Morehead, the Richmond area brigade commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a heritage group with about 3,500 members in Virginia.

“If Hollywood has an official stance – no Confederate flags of any type will be flown – I haven’t seen it on anything that I’ve gotten,” Morehead added. He said he thought the 2020 ban was temporary.

“Of all places, Hollywood Cemetery, which is a very historic … landmark, much like Monument Avenue was, is succumbing to the woke society,” Morehead said.

Morehead, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, had been putting up at Hollywood several replicas of the Confederacy’s third, and final, national flag. That lesser-known flag is red and white with a square battle-flag image in its upper left corner.

Figuring enough time had passed since the 2020 protests, Morehead in early May put up a large third-national flag on a pole by the grave of Davis, the Confederate President. A Confederate flag had flown on that pole for years before being taken down amid the protests. Morehead later found that the newly raised flag had been removed. He criticized the cemetery for failing to celebrate  “the folks who are interred there that put them on the map.”

Tamara Jenkins, a spokeswoman for Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, indicated Confederate flags are still allowed in city cemeteries. “There is no rule in place to regulate flags on individual graves,” she said by email.

‘A symbolic cacophony’: As monuments come down, the unraveling of the rebel flag continues

The ‘inner sanctum’

Historian Mary H. Mitchell captured Hollywood’s attraction to aficionados of the Confederacy in her 1985 book, “Hollywood Cemetery: The History of a Southern Shrine.”

“Most of the war’s major battles were fought on Virginia soil, and (Richmond) assumed responsibility for an enormous number of the dead and wounded,” Mitchell wrote.

“Richmond became a symbol of what these men had fought for — a shrine to the Old South and the Lost Cause…If Richmond was the temple of the Lost Cause, Hollywood was its inner sanctum.”

The Lost Cause was a distorted version of history, pushed by the Civil War’s losers, that falsely insisted the war wasn’t about slavery, that enslaved people had been happy and that Confederates were saintly, among other claims.

Hollywood claims to be the home of 18,000 Confederate graves, but modern researchers say the number is probably several thousand smaller. Still, Hollywood and the city’s Oakwood Cemetery in the East End appear to be the top two cemeteries in the U.S. in their numbers of Confederate dead.

It seems clear that Hollywood, like Richmond and much of the South, is struggling to reconcile its past and present. Hollywood’s struggle was evident as far back as 1999, when the foreword to a new edition of Mitchell’s book was written by the late Hunter Holmes McGuire Jr., the great grandson of a prominent Confederate surgeon and a surgeon in his own right.

Hollywood, McGuire wrote, has a “unique drawing power for the growing number of people fascinated by the American Civil War. Some unreconstructed rebels come to mourn a ‘lost cause,’ but more and more people realize that what both sides gained in their crucible of sacrifice was a new and better nation.”

Similarly, Hollywood says on its website today that Confederates “went into battle for what seemed then a noble cause of protecting their homes from northern aggression… Now we know that the cause was not a lost one. These men’s lives, along with those of their northern counterparts, were given to forge a single and better nation.”

The cemetery’s flag policy doesn’t mention perceptions of the flag, but Hollywood’s Jenkins acknowledged the flags are offensive to many people. “Don’t infer from the policy statement that we are insensitive to many people’s feelings about the flag.”

Hollywood’s statement says, “Whether and when it may be appropriate for these flags to be flown again in commemoration of the dead will be determined at a later date.” Asked if Hollywood had set a date to revisit the policy, Jenkins said, “No comment.”

Vandalism

The flags’ potential to draw vandals is a major concern at Hollywood.

In summer 2020, vandals cut a rope and stole a large replica of the third national flag of the Confederacy. Last year vandals caused $50,000 to $100,000 in damage when they knocked over several headstones and spray painted one, though that wasn’t in the Confederate part of the cemetery.

Jenkins said he knew of no arrests in the cases.

A recent visit to Hollywood found visitors with mixed feelings about the flag ban.

“Don’t destroy one man’s heritage for another’s,” said a Civil War buff who declined to give his name.

The man later walked to his vehicle, pulled out a miniature version of the rebels’ third national flag and placed it beside a small Confederate battle flag next to the pyramid.

Nelson Bryant, a Maine native living in Henrico County, said he had no problem with the Confederate flags being removed. Of course, Bryant said with a smile, “Down here I’m a damn Yankee.”

Bryant’s wife Anna, raised in Henrico, said, “I’d like to see it come back, the battle flag, but not necessarily at this time.” Perhaps another generation could better deal with it, she said.

“There’s an awful lot tied to the flag,” she said. “But time heals that.”

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Downtown

The Valentine receives major national grant to upgrade archive storage facilities

The Valentine was awarded the largest grant of any other humanities project in Virginia and is in the top 8% of the 245 grant recipients across the country.

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On April 13th, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced a grant awarding $408,761 to The Valentine for new collection storage materials. The grant will go toward the Valentine Moment Campaign, a years-long effort to modernize the museum’s storage facilities and strengthen the presentation of Richmond history by analyzing all 1.6 million objects in its collection.

The Valentine received the full amount requested with a 2:1 matching requirement after demonstrating its commitment to preserving local history, addressing complex social issues, and engaging diverse audiences. The grant will support a $1.6 million project to purchase and install compact storage cabinetry and fixtures in the main museum building, under the umbrella of the larger $16 million Valentine Moment Campaign.

“The Valentine Moment Campaign will fortify our museum to serve Richmonders for generations to come. The NEH’s generous grant is a crucial part of our efforts,” said Valentine Director Bill Martin. “This infrastructure upgrade allows us to safely store important historical objects, and our goal is to use these objects to engage, challenge and inspire our community.”

The Valentine was awarded the largest grant of any other humanities project in Virginia and is in the top 8% of the 245 grant recipients across the country.

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We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.

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Education

U of R professors awarded $325K NEH Grant for open-source tool to analyze historic images

Statistics professor Taylor Arnold and digital humanities professor Lauren Tilton have received a nearly $325K ($324,693) grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support a project to build open-source software for collecting and analyzing digital images.

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Statistics professor Taylor Arnold and digital humanities professor Lauren Tilton have received a nearly $325K ($324,693) grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support a project to build open-source software for collecting and analyzing digital images.

Arnold and Tilton created and co-direct Photogrammar, an interactive photo collection focusing on the Great Depression era. The open-access, web-based tool allows users to easily navigate and engage with a collection of 170,000 photographs taken between 1935 and 1943.

The NEH Digital Humanities award will support a project to make the Photogrammar software available to allow anyone with a set of digital images and associated information to create — with no prior programming experience — their own digital public humanities projects.

“The goal of the software is to use interactive data visualization and AI to open up new ways of exploring and understanding digitized collections of images,” said Tilton. “We draw on methods from data science, spatial analysis, natural language processing, and computer vision to provide additional context and information to digital images — context that helps people browse and interpret the materials.”

“We are excited to create this open-source tool that will allow anyone to have this same experience with their own collections,” said Arnold. “We envision people using this software for a variety of different applications, from documentary photography, historic newspapers, and digitized medieval manuscripts.”

In addition to the software, the grant-funded project will produce six case studies that will model and highlight how the software can be used in a variety of different domains, data sizes, and types of institutions including archives, libraries, and museums. Extensive tutorials and documentation will be developed to assist in making the free software broadly accessible to the general public by 2025.

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We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.

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