Telling Stories

This week’s readings cover a wide range of topics, from looking into the United State’s obsession with genealogical studies, to the myths of little known historical figures, and finally examining the influence and history of Virginia’s First Families. A Nation of Descendants, despite only being one chapter out of a larger book, provided such an in-depth history about genealogy in the U.S. that this one chapter can single handedly connect to nearly ever other topic we’ve talked about in this class. The obsession with heredity led to the creation of hereditary organizations that are still around today. Furthermore, genealogy has connections to the eugenics movement, to racial segregation, to Native American sovereignty, and so much more. I think this was a great reading to end on for our final blog post, because it encompasses so much of what we’ve been discussing all semester long. The Lee Family podcast also tied into this reading because the Lees are one of those families that can trace their lineage back to the founding of America. I also believe it is a nice tie in from last week, when we were discussing the Lee Monument. Since we only had the class listen to this singular podcast, I’m very interested in seeing what they will find about some of the other first families we have selected for our in-class activity. While I have done some preliminary research of my own, I tried to leave things open so I can learn some things alongside the rest of the class. The final reading for this week was the story of Elizabeth Van Lew. I was surprised to have never heard of Van Lew, especially since she played such an integral role as a Union spy during the Civil War. However, learning more about her abnormal history and her beliefs makes it easy to see why Virginia, who for years suppressed the winning narrative in favor of the Confederate “lost cause” would encourage others to forget one “Crazy Bet.” Here are some sample questions we will hopefully cover during the discussion this week: Citations Morgan, Francesca. “I Could Love Them, Too: Genealogy Practices and White Supremacy.” In A Nation of Descendants: Politics and the Practice of Genealogy in U.S. History, 19–51. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021. Ness, Robert Van. “First Families of Virginia: The Lees.” Virginia History Podcast, January 27, 2020. Varon, Elizabeth R. “Elizabeth van Lew: Southern Lady, Union Spy.” In Virginia Women: Their Lives and Times, edited by Cynthia A Kierner and Sandra Gioia Treadway, Vol. 1. University of Georgia Press, 2014.

Who Controls the Past: The Virginia History and Textbook Commission

For my independent, outside the classroom experience with Virginia Issues and Controversies, I decided to take a look at the recommended virtual event, “Who Controls the Past: The Virginia History and Textbook Commission.” The event was sponsored by Encyclopedia Virginia, and featured speakers from the University of Lynchburg and a member of the Pamunkey Tribe. This event took place on place on September 21, 2022, but I registered in advance in case I would not be able to find anything else to do for this week. Even though this was a one-day virtual event, the entire webinar can be found on YouTube. This webinar did not focus on the inaccuracies found in Virginia’s textbooks, but instead the history surrounding those textbooks. Patricia Miller, from Encyclopedia Virginia, hosts the event. Adam Dean, from the University of Lynchburg, explores the history of the textbook commission. He explores the publication of the inherently Southern and racist perspective, otherwise known as the Lost Cause, which glorified slavery and promoted segregation. Textbooks in Virginia were engineered to teach children of the glory of the South, which generated confusion when children could not comprehend why the South had lost if they supposedly won all the battles. Brown v. Board, Massive Resistance, and the Civil Rights Movement only exacerbated this issue, making it obvious that these textbooks were promoting segregation and racism in the state’s youth. This led to the creation of a bi-racial committee to screen content being placed in textbooks. Ashely Spivey, from the Pamunkey Tribe, explores how the textbooks dealt with the history and culture of Native Americans. If should be better stated that the textbooks did not deal with Native American history in Virginia. She explains that the history of Native Americans is simply treated as a backdrop for colonization, and that they are all the same. They totally disregarded the differences in tribal cultures, developing the stereotypes of the “noble savage,” and later “uncivilized savages.” It got to a point that it was assumed that Native Americans had disappeared, and their history is just not covered at all. This was ironic since Indian Schools were basically trying to teach an entire culture that they did not exist. She explains that this affects all people in the state, since teaching this type of exclusion leads to bigger problems with representation. Both speakers talked quite a bit about topics we have covered in this class, including segregation, Massive Resistance, Indian relations, eugenics, and more. I have no doubt that they talked about some of the things we will cover in the future of this class, and I look forward to making those connections as we move forward. 1. What lasting impact has textbooks had on the attitude and perception of certain groups in Virginia? Are they still present today? 2. This webinar brought of the Indian Training Schools, which is something I wanted to discuss but couldn’t figure out how to integrate into class discussion. I feel like this is an entirely separate section of issues and controversies that could be explored. The most I am familiar with is the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania—mainly which I know about involves football because of a pop culture class I took once (not at UMW). So… what are some controversies associated with the Indian Schools? What was their impact in Virginia? Citations Encyclopedia Virginia. “Encyclopedia Virginia Presents: Who Controls the Past: The Virginia History and Textbook Commission.” YouTube, September 21, 2022.

Pure America

Elizabeth Catte’s Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia (2021) examines the history of Virginia’s eugenics movement, specifically how it is interconnected with class, gender, and racial prejudices. Catte’s account of the eugenics movement is often disturbing, focusing on Western State Lunatic Asylum, nearby Charlottesville, and the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. Something I knew before reading this book was that the Western State Lunatic Asylum has a history of racial exclusion. Western State was racially segregated until 1967, despite Virginia passing laws in 1845 that allowed free and enslaved African Americans admittance to mental institutions. Catte, however, pays special attention to the mental institution’s history as a center for the sterilization of “imbeciles” and “morons,” before discussing the building’s similarity to Kirkbride buildings and how patients were used as a labor source to benefit the hospital. Most disturbing is how proponents of the eugenics movement sought to subjugate and control certain groups of people, mainly based on gender and ethnicity, to keep the world in which they inhabit more “pure.” The specific cases and stories uncovered by Catte resemble an emergence of legalized conscription or enslavement, especially for women who were institutionalized, sterilized, and then made to work as housekeepers. Even more horrifying is the state’s use of eminent domain to force the inhabitants of Appalachia off their land under the guise of allotting land for a national park. Instead, this was a move made to create a tourist location for the rich and wealthy, and to do away with an ethnic group they viewed as impoverished and stupid. I found Catte’s analysis of the history of the eugenics movement in Virginia to be very interesting, and I am most interested in how interconnected the eugenics movement is with the history of mental health. I took History of Mental Health in the U.S. with Dr. McClurken a few semesters ago, and the content of that class was often horrifying. Catte’s book is tame compared to some of the things we discussed in that class. Most interesting to me was the focus on Western State. Dr. McClurken has written a book that compiles research about Western State during the Civil War era, titled Taking Care of the Living (2009). This book provided a different perspective during a different era on Wester State, yet the history of the mental institution is just as morbid as it was back then. I was not aware just how deep the eugenics movement went in Virginia, let only in a single portion of the state. With that in mind, I have a few questions to think about: (1) How much did the Virginia Way influence the eugenics movement in Virginia? (2) What legislation is still in effect that is leftover from the legacy of the eugenics movement? (3) How has the legacy of the Lynchburg Colony affected the state in the present day? (4) Western State is described as having a connection to Thomas Jefferson, which is “worth its weight in gold” in Virginia. While Jefferson is one of the founding fathers of this country and has a lasting legacy in places like Charlottesville and Montpellier, what makes his connection so valuable to a mental institution? (5) How does one calculate the economic cost of one’s life when they are deemed unworthy? This process seems very one-sided, especially since it is the wealthy and power in control of such calculations. Citation Catte, Elizabeth. Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia. Cleveland, Ohio: Belt Publishing, 2021.

The Virginia Way

Jeffrey Thomas’ 2019 book The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power After 2016 explores some of the crucial understandings of power and politics within the state of Virginia. Thomas uses the term “the Virginia Way” throughout his book to describe an inalienable concept in Virginian history, politics, legislation, society, and culture that purports a sense of gentility, honor, and democracy. In reality, the Virginia Way has allowed politicians to use this ideology to their advantage, breeding corruption and cronyism, while preventing democratic ideals instead of promoting them. Thomas offers a look at several key examples of the Virginia Way, such as Dominion Energy’s corporate hegemony, the University of Virginia’s wealth-based affirmative action, and gerrymandering within the state. Meanwhile Virginia continues to hang onto its Southern roots, even when faced with opposition to Confederate iconism within and out of the state. Thomas’ methodology examines themes that consider how the Virginia Way has been presented in Virginia’s history and mythology, issues with corporate power, higher education, and local government, as well as examining the controversies surrounding in-state Medicaid expansion and democracy. Thomas goes so far as to claim that Virginia is the most unequal state in the United States, with voting rights and political funding being used to abuse power, while simple measures have been implemented out of state to prevent such corruption. Thomas finds it ironic that Virginia, which is the birthplace of the United States, holds onto such elitist ideals that contradict the very doctrine the state’s politicians claim to support. Thomas concludes that for Virginians to break free of such rampant corruption that they must turn the tides against the ruling classes and corporations, spearheading democracy to turn simple situations into extraordinary victories. His postscript even outlines a potential solution in the form of a ballot skeleton key, wherein the people would be able to wrest control of democracy back from corruption politicians and legislation, therefore against the so-called Virginia Way. I found Thomas’ analysis of Virginia’s problems to be quite fascinating since I have lived through or witnessed a few of the examples her discussed. I attended high school in Richmond from 2013-2018 and had pretty much a front row seat to various scandals, controversies, and protests. I think we can all agree that many of the things Thomas talked about are things we as Virginians have been aware about, whether we wanted to admit it or not. However I am also aware that people talking this class might not have been aware of some of these things. So, going off of that, I have a few questions: (1) What are your impressions of the Virginia Way in 2022? (2) Are some (or all) of the problems Thomas talked about still relevant? (3) Do you think it is possible to begin fixing these issues, or is Virginia so bogged down in its history of the Virginia Way that this may not be an option? Citation Thomas, Jeffrey B. The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power after 2016. Charleston, South Carolina: History Press, 2019.