When I read this piece by the Reverend Wallace Adams-Riley to my three granddaughters, they broke into spontaneous applause. Wallace is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. St Paul’s was founded over 150 years ago and was attended by General Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. On January 13, 1990, a pre- inaugural prayer service was held at St. Paul’s for L. Douglas Wilder, the first elected African-American State Governor in the United States.
My Dear People,
This past Friday, I walked over the Malvern Hill battlefield with my five-year-old, Fin. (Gena was off working and Nelson was at a day camp.)
Malvern Hill is half an hour southeast of Richmond. The battle there took place in the summer of 1862, as the Union army withdrew, for the time being, from the environs of Richmond.
We went mid-morning and it was a perfect day to be out there, walking the paths mown through the tall grass, a light breeze blowing. We walked hand in hand. Visiting each cannon, looking for birds’ nests. Stopping for dragonflies. And caterpillars. And hoof prints.
And talking some, as you would imagine, about what happened there, on that very ground, a little over a century and a half ago.
About how his great-great-great grandfather, B.E. Nicholson, was at that battle. With a South Carolina unit, the Hampton Legion.
About how Papa’s ancestors lost the battle, and the war. And how Mama’s ancestors won.
We’ve talked about these things before.
And we’ve talked about slavery. And what slavery had to do with it.
And about how my ancestors, and therefore his, owned slaves.
Of course that’s hard to understand.
Hard for him, to understand.
And hard for me, to understand.
We’ll talk more, of course.
I want him to know. To know what happened. To know the whole story.
To know how brave B.E. Nicholson was, capturing a flag in battle at Second Manassas, just eight weeks after Malvern Hill.
But, also, I want to reflect with him on the painful reality that our ancestors held other human beings in bondage. And that the cause for which they fought – his eleven direct ancestors who served in the Confederate armies – cannot be separated from that soul-crushing institution.
And what I hope, and what I pray, is that, over time, our conversations about the American Civil War, and his conversations with others, particularly with African-Americans, will play a part in his becoming, ever more so, a compassionate person. A humble person. A person determined to play a part in helping our world to be a more humane and just and welcoming place. For all people. Regardless of race. Or heritage. Or anything else.
I want him to know the whole story, and to really know it.
So that he can be a whole person.
And so that others can be as well.
Your brother in Christ,