It was 5:30 a.m. when Edward L. Ayers received the e-mail. No hello. No signature. Just a forwarded copy of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's Confederate History Month proclamation.
The Virginia governor's proclamation last year celebrated the state's secessionist history with no mention of slavery. The anonymous forwarding of the statement seemed meant to taunt Mr. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and a historian of the Civil War. Mr. Ayers had for months argued publicly that the approaching sesquicentennial of the Civil War presented an opportunity for Richmond to have an honest and overdue dialogue about the centrality of slavery as a cause of the war, and here was Governor McDonnell effectively doing just the opposite.
"It felt like they were rubbing it in my face," Mr. Ayers recalls.
The broadened dialogue that Mr. Ayers had promoted would mark a stark departure from the centennial 50 years ago, he said, when Richmond "blew it" by espousing state's rights at commemorations and glossing over the experiences of black Americans, who struggled at every turn of the conflict to secure their own emancipation.
Mr. McDonnell's proclamation was widely and quickly condemned, and his mea culpa was soon to follow. But the incident illustrated that the war still provokes raw emotions about race and Southern identity, making it the kind of subject that some university presidents, particularly in the South, avoid. Mr. Ayers, however, has thrown himself headlong into the discussion by promoting a series of events in Richmond that are predicated on the notion that the city has historically failed to wholly face up to its troubling past.
The tensions for Mr. Ayers are reflected in his potentially conflicting roles as a renowned scholar of Southern history, who has a legitimate interest in how the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is commemorated, and a university leader trying to make nice with his community. Most university presidents sidestep political matters that are not directly tied to the promotion of their institutions' interests, but Mr. Ayers is taking up an issue that has been among Richmond's most politically controversial. While he would be expected as a president to promote the importance of diversity at the University of Richmond, it is a different matter altogether for Mr. Ayers to point out that the great-grandparents of his neighbors profited from the sale of human beings.
Before he took on this contentious task, Mr. Ayers told the university's trustees of his plans. He warned them about the potential consequences of his efforts: "I kept saying, 'You realize this is dangerous. Somebody could drag the university into this,'" recalls Mr. Ayers, who had been on the job just 18 months when he approached them, in 2009.
With the full board's backing, Mr. Ayers soon started a collaborative project, called the Future of Richmond's Past, whose aim is to create events and symposia that stress historically accurate dialogue rather than romanticizing the Old South. This loose coalition of community leaders, which also includes the presidents of Virginia Union and Virginia Commonwealth Universities, has brought to the fore discussions that have often been taboo, says Dwight C. Jones, mayor of Richmond. The city has typically dodged discussions about slavery, because "nobody wants to own up" to the "heinous and uncivilized and immoral institution" that was once the lifeblood of Richmond's economy, Mr. Jones says.
"Richmond is a very polite place," he says. "And sometimes we leave our bones buried."
It was not long after Mr. Ayers arrived in Richmond, in 2007, that he began forging alliances in the community. Among his first actions was to join the boards of the Museum of the Confederacy, the Virginia Historical Society, and the American Civil War Center. The three had not always worked well together when it came to discussing the history of the war. By affiliating himself with each of the groups, Mr. Ayers sent a message that his intent was to be inclusive rather than divisive, says S. Waite Rawls III, president and chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy.
From the beginning, Mr. Ayers sent "a very powerful statement" that "I'm not going to be partisan here," Mr. Rawls says.
While many Richmond residents would argue that "slavery" has been a dirty word for decades in the city, so, too, in recent years has "Confederacy" been unspeakable, Mr. Rawls says. Indeed, the entire subject of the Civil War has become so polarizing as to make any conversation about it at all fraught with peril.
"There's a risk for anybody to get out in front of it, simply because the track record has been so bad for so long," Mr. Rawls says. "That's one of the reasons I really take my hat off" to Mr. Ayers. "He was aware of it. He was taking a risk."
One needn't look very far in Richmond to see examples of its struggle to reconcile different versions of its difficult history. In 1995, when the city broke ground on a statue honoring Arthur Ashe, the black tennis champion and Richmond native, protesters objected to the statue's placement along Monument Avenue, a stately, tree-lined boulevard dotted with mansions and statues of Confederate generals.
In 2003 some residents protested the placement of a statue of Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad on the grounds of the old Tredegar Iron Works, where cannons and other military supplies were produced for the Confederate military. The primary critics were the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization that cites the South's quest to preserve "liberty and freedom" as the war's primary cause, and whose membership is open only to male descendants of Confederate soldiers.
Symbols of the Confederacy have also come under fire literally. In 2000 a mural along Richmond's floodwall depicting Robert E. Lee was torched with a Molotov cocktail.
Timothy M. Kaine, a former governor of Virginia who was mayor of Richmond during some of the city's most contentious debates over its history, says there's little question that Mr. Ayers is stepping into a subject that has proved to be a powder keg time and time again.
"You can't get into a sensitive issue without touching upon people's sensitivities, but avoiding people's sensitivities is not the primary goal of a leader," says Mr. Kaine, now a senior distinguished lecturer in law and leadership studies at the University of Richmond and a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Scholar and Cajoler
There is no more public sign of Mr. Ayers's efforts to bring Richmond's historically disparate coalitions together than Civil War & Emancipation Day, an event started by the Future of Richmond's Past and celebrated for the second year in April. The event seeks to tell what Mr. Ayers calls the "whole story" of the war by focusing on the freeing of slaves as well as the battles. Civil War & Emancipation Day effectively replaced Richmond's Civil War Days, which occurred annually for more than a decade and consisted mostly of re-enactments.
In making the case that a fuller history of the war should be recognized in Richmond and throughout the South, Mr. Ayers has assumed the roles of scholar, cajoler, and politician. Those who have observed him in debates over the war say several of his attributes have helped to win people over, including his infectious laugh, boyish grin, and, perhaps most important, his Southern bona fides. The self-described child of "hillbillies" from eastern Tennessee, Mr. Ayers retains his Southern drawl, even after pursuing a Ph.D. at Yale University. In other words, he doesn't come off as an elitist academic from up North, lecturing Southerners about their past. He's one of them.
Still, Mr. Ayers has sometimes fallen flat with audiences. He recalls, for instance, how he disappointed the organizer of a civic event when he told her he planned to devote his keynote speech to the subject of Abraham Lincoln. Why, the organizer asked, would he not talk instead about Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, who is lionized with a prominent statue on Monument Avenue? During a question-and-answer session after the speech, he sparred for a while with the woman, who attacked Lincoln as the war's chief provocateur. While she provided him with a gift basket as the event concluded, she qualified her gratitude by thanking him but adding, "I guess," recalls Mr. Ayers, who declined to name the woman.
Reflecting upon the critics he has encountered in Richmond, Mr. Ayers wrote in an e-mail that "they increasingly stood out as a beleaguered few, strident because they could feel the tide shifting."
The fiery debates have often hinged on whether to emphasize the story of Confederate soldiers marching to war or the story of the slaves struggling to be free. Drawing upon his more than two decades of historical research, Mr. Ayers has argued that the two subjects are far from mutually exclusive, and, in fact, cannot be disconnected, because they happened simultaneously.
"If people want to argue with me, they have to know more than I do, and the facts are on my side," Mr. Ayers says.
His scholarly credentials help bolster his credibility in any historical debate. His 1992 book, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His 2003 book, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863, won the Albert J. Beveridge Award from the American Historical Association and the Bancroft Prize for distinguished writing in American history from Columbia University.
Many people in the general public still view the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves as two distinct events. As a result, they are seldom commemorated on the same stage. That view, however, has been dismissed for decades by most scholars, who cite evidence of slaves' moving toward their own emancipation from the very start of the war.
"Too many readers in the past have imagined emancipation as a process that took place with a stroke of Abraham Lincoln's pen," says Adam Goodheart, author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening, published this year, and director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, at Washington College. "People haven't fully appreciated the extent to which it was truly a revolution that was driven to a large extent by enslaved African-Americans themselves."
But the views of historians, which have evolved in that direction since the 1980s, are still dismissed by some people in Richmond and across the South as revisionist scholarship predicated on white-liberal guilt. After members of the Future of Richmond's Past laid out their agenda in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed essay last year, a reader wrote a letter to the editor equating the group's efforts with shoving "politically correct spinach" down the throats of thousands of Civil War enthusiasts who would be repelled by so much talk of "slavery, women, immigrants, Southern Unionists, free blacks, and the common Confederate soldier."
The Sons of Confederate Veterans participated in Civil War & Emancipation Day, but members of the organization remain wary that the pendulum of public discourse has swung too far, vilifying Southerners in a war that was brutal on all sides.
"Anything that breaks the myth that the war was about slavery and nothing but slavery is taboo," says B. Frank Earnest, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Army of Northern Virginia.
Mr. Earnest has had his own debates with Mr. Ayers, who invited the Confederate enthusiast onto a public-radio show called BackStory, which Mr. Ayers co-hosts along with two other history professors. During the interview, Mr. Ayers pressed Mr. Earnest to explain how he responds to black Americans who are offended by the Confederate flag, provoking a response that is something of a trope among Confederate loyalists: Black men fought for the Confederacy, too.
"No, sir. No, sir. This is not true," Mr. Ayers said. "We won't argue about this on the air, but we can't go down this road of all these black people fighting for the Confederacy. This is a ..."
"So no black people ever fought for the Confederacy?" Mr. Earnest interjected.
The number who may have, Mr. Ayers replied, is "trivial compared to the four million people held in slavery for 200 years, and the 180,000 who fought for the Union. OK, so it's a trivial thing."
Mr. Earnest is not alone in his view that slavery, while tied to the war, has been overblown as its cause. Indeed, about half of Americans agree with him, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. While 38 percent of those surveyed said the issue of slavery was the primary cause of the war, more than 48 percent said states' rights were the chief inciting factor. Nine percent said the war was equally about states' rights and slavery, while the remainder said neither was the primary cause, or they didn't know.
Mr. Ayers himself would argue that drawing neat lines about the war's cause is naïve and dangerous, but he was taken aback enough by the Pew poll's results that he responded to them in a recent online column for The New York Times. Drawing upon computer-assisted research tools, which allowed him to perform sophisticated word-use searches of 3,000 pages of transcribed secession debates in Richmond, Mr. Ayers asserts, "The language of slavery is everywhere in these debates," as is the language of "rights."
"The records of the Virginian secession debate demonstrate how the vocabularies of slavery and rights, entangled and intertwined from the very beginning of the United States, became one and the same in the secession crisis," he wrote. "The North did not fight at first to end slavery, but the South did fight to protect slavery."
This view, mined from Mr. Ayers's life in scholarship, still rubs some people the wrong way in the South, says Joan Waugh, a history professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who participated in Virginia's first official Civil War sesquicentennial event, which was moderated by Mr. Ayers on the university's campus. But while Richmond may have been slow to abandon the "lost cause," a view of the war that portrays Confederates' motives as noble and plays down slavery, the South as a whole is a different place now, she says.
"You would still find a large percentage of Southern whites who prefer the old story, but the fact is there's no huge uprising against Ed Ayers," says Ms. Waugh, author of U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth. "He seeks out people that might oppose him, and he wins them over to his side."
There may be no uprising, but there was also precious little enthusiasm among community and business leaders to participate in sesquicentennial events before Mr. Ayers pushed for it, says Christy S. Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center. Ms. Coleman says her own early efforts to court allies for such events were met with the response: "We're not touching anything that has to do with that sesquicentennial. We're inviting a hornets' nest."
'We Like This war Too Much'
On a recent rainy afternoon, Mr. Ayers sat in the administrative offices of the American Civil War Center, where museum exhibits are designed to tell the story of the war from the perspectives of Northern whites, Southern whites, and black Americans on both sides of the border. On a rolling hill just beyond this building stands the statue of Lincoln, which some in this city decried as honoring the Confederacy's conqueror.
The significance of this space is not lost on Mr. Ayers, who never ceases to remind people that a war that has long gripped the American imagination in the form of battlefield re-enactments and the pageantry of hoopskirts resulted in the deaths of 620,000 people.
"Here, underneath our feet, is the great story that needs to be told," he says. "So many of those dead are buried here in this city. Unless we feel the pain, we like war too much. We like this war too much."
Entwined in that story of death and brutality is also the story of emancipation. It begins 150 years ago, on May 23, 1861, two years before the Emancipation Proclamation would be signed, when three black men flee across the James River in a stolen boat to Fort Monroe, Va., where they claim asylum among Union forces. That marked the beginning of the end of the enslavement of four million people, Mr. Ayers says.
"It's the greatest moment in American history," he says. "Where do you go to celebrate that? Where's the Liberty Bell? I hope it's here."