We’re changing names in Virginia, purging personalities, banishing statues, rewriting history on the fly — an illuminating rationale thus far unavailing.
Thomas Paine, wrote a response in 1791 to Edmund Burke’s notably unenthusiastic comments on the French Revolution and said, “I know a place in America called Point-no-Point; because as you proceed along the shore, gay and flowery … it continually recedes and presents itself at a distance ahead; and when you have got as far as you can go, there is no point at all.”
In that vein, a little more than a week ago, House Speaker House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn deemed historic items in the Virginia Capitol’s Old House Chamber to be worthy of expulsion.
“Virginia has a story to tell that extends far beyond glorifying the Confederacy and its participants,” Filler-Corn said, “Now is the time to provide context to our Capitol to truly tell the commonwealth’s whole history.”
“Our Capitol,” but her choices, obviously. Some busts of Civil War-era personalities were removed and one prominent statue of Robert E. Lee went away — all in the dead of night, without prior public notice of intents or even so much as a howdy-do.
As I recall, that’s the way the Baltimore Colts stole away to Indianapolis — a different subject, I know, but the irritation endures.
About the Old House Chamber: Here, stretched across the main floor on the north side of the State Capitol, once sat the House of Delegates. At different times, the space included balconies and a courtroom above.
Aaron Burr was tried in there in 1807 and, in the middle of an 1870 trial, the courtroom collapsed into the House chamber. More than 60 died and hundreds more injured.
If you’ve been to the Capitol in the last 114 years, you know that wings extend out to embrace sessions of the House and Senate. Both chambers were added between 1904-06, when major improvements were made to the Capitol, presumably making it less likely to fall apart.
Compared to other state capitol building, the Virginia Capitol is grand, lovely at night, but not large. Thomas Jefferson had his hand in the design, though he clearly disliked amendments made while he was away in France. He would have hated the wings.
With the additional space, however, the Old House Chamber was left for other purposes. The state Department of Agriculture went in there for a while. Occasionally, you would find lawyers-to-be completing the State Bar exam.
As a practical matter, the storied chamber became just “available space,” with file cabinets, chairs and desks strewn around in the old legislative manner and, along the wall, were collected relics and memorials, some related to the Civil War. It functioned as a sort of casual, ad hoc museum where groups and tour guides often convened.
Stuck in my mind, forever, are a few nights in 1987, when an extraordinary collection of personalities gathered in the Old House Chamber: Jack Lemmon, Richard Jordan, Robert Prosky, Paul Dooley, Peter Gallagher, Keven Spacey, Charles Dutton, Bill Macy and Cynthia Nixon.
But not on camera, too bad. I stood with the film crew as they shot scenes for “The Murder of Mary Phagan,” the horrifying story of Leo Frank’s trial and subsequent murder in 1915.
Larry McMurtry wrote the script and Lemon played Georgia Gov. John M. Slaton for a two-night NBC-TV film portraying Frank’s misfortune: He was hung by a Georgia mob in an act of vicious, collective anti-Semitism.
Gallagher, Spacey, Nixon and Macy were early in their careers and the film, shot almost entirely in and around Richmond, holds up well. You can stream the movie on Amazon and you will see Robert E. Lee’s statue in the scenes. The producers elected not to move him.
Lee’s statue, one state lawmaker correctly observed, served as an historical marker. It sat on the very spot where Lee accepted command of Virginia’s armed forces in 1861.
Its inclusion in a drama about racial division struck me at the time as more than a little poignant, as both the film and the statue depicted heartbreaking tragedies.
Things come and go. The Old House Chamber may be reassessed and redeployed. But you easily can do hits, runs and errors on every portrait, bust and personal artifact in Virginia’s Capitol. It’s a democratic temple of human imperfection.
Still, every so often, confronted by the urge to redecorate, could we at least have some open discussion and consider the point?
After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co. and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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