Thursday, March 10, 2011

RVA: American City, Southern Place

All lectures should be cultural history lectures and you know why? Because attendees at a lecture don't fall asleep when the speaker is talking about people and not just historical fact.

That bit of wisdom came to me courtesy of today's Banner Lecture at the Virginia Historical Society. Gregg Kimball of the Library of Virginia (these museums are almost as incestuous as the restaurants are, but in an educational way) was giving a talk on "American City, Southern Place: Richmond in the 1850s." Of note was that I didn't see a single snorer.

Kimball got the audience's attention right off the bat by wryly observing that, "People in the antebellum period didn't know they were in the antebellum period." Bada bing.

He described Richmond on the eve of war as relatively cosmopolitan, with many ties to the north, a fairly advanced industrial culture and deeply tied to the hinterlands (you know, the part of the state west of us that we tend to forget about).

Some of the most interesting of the information he shared concerned the 1850 and 1860 changes in the Virginia census. The foreign-born population here soared while the free black population barely sustained itself. Surely no one was surprised at the latter given the climate of the time.

Letters from Mann Valentine (yes, of that Valentine family) home to his wife from NYC were illuminating for how long-standing the South's lack of comprehension of Northern ways is.

He told her that the place reminded him of ants moving along a busy street and lamented the fact that no one spoke to each other on the street, not even a quick hello. Howe many generations of Southerners have returned from their first trip north to say exactly the same thing?

What else kept the usually drowsy audience wide awake and interested today? Probably Kimball's explanation of the growth of fraternal organizations (newcomers seeking to "belong") and tales of drinking, gambling and prostitution (oh, my!) being lures to the city for country folk.

In another example of the more things change, the more they stay the same, two of Richmond's councilmen at that time were slaveholders. Draw your own conclusions from there.

Undoubtedly part of Kimball's appeal was his stellar slide presentation, full of historic paintings and photographs and augmented by some fascinating maps drawn from census date. Where are the Baptists? Look and see. And the free blacks? There they are. Each map gave a different snapshot of a group of people.

And, let's face it, people are far more interesting than dates and events. It's why of all the newspapers of the time, it was the penny paper, The Daily Dispatch, that provided Kimball a wealth of information about what was actually going on in the streets of Richmond.

People have always wanted to know what the other people are doing. Still do; otherwise, why read a blog, right?


  1. Hi Karen, a friend passed along your blog post and I just wanted to say "thanks" for coming to my talk and writing such an entertaining and thoughtful summary. I'm enjoying your take on Richmond and look forward to reading more! -- Gregg

  2. And thank you for an informative and interesting lecture.

    I hope I can keep you as entertained as you kept me!

  3. Missed the lecture, oh well, there's always music for mending....... bEWARE THE iDES OF mARCH. lol

  4. Thankfully, there's always music.