This year, 2018, we commemorated the bicentennial of the house most commonly referred to as The White House of the Confederacy. Our journey led us through 200 years of history, allowing us to use a variety of methods to explore themes and people that our regular house tours touch upon only briefly. As I look back over the roster of programs (one the first Saturday of every month), I am grateful to the many knowledgeable and talented individuals who made our trip back in time possible.
Even before the year’s programs began, we were fortunate to have local artist Alfonso Perez Acosta create a series of bicentennial portraits showcasing lesser-known people associated with the house over time. Acosta later joined us for two “Wine and Watercolor” evenings during which guests tried their hands at painting.
Gregg Kimball, Education Director, Library of Virginia, kicked off the series with a talk that shed light on prewar Richmond and the home’s early owners, while architectural historian Ed Slipek guided visitors through the house on an architectural tour. Although the architect of the home is unknown, it is commonly attributed to Robert Mills. Slipek proposed a radically different theory. What if the home was designed by a woman–Gabriella Harvie Randolph Brockenbrough, the wife of the first owner John Brockenbrough?
As we moved into the war years, we explored the dual nature of the White House of the Confederacy as both a social center and a center of military command operations. Delving into the social aspects, we looked at the women comprising Varina Davis’s circle of friends, chief among them Mary Chesnut. Board member and Chesnut biographer Elisabeth Muhlenfield Wollan offered her insights in a panel discussion moderated by our CEO Christy Coleman. In a later program, Waite Rawls, President of the ACWM Foundation, highlighted the numerous aids who advised Jefferson Davis on military matters.
The servants (both enslaved and free) were given a voice, literally, in two dramatic tours written and directed by storyteller Dylan Pritchett, whose association with the house goes back over 20 years. In “Seizing Freedom,” William Jackson along with Betsy and James Pemberton (movingly portrayed by Joseph Rogers, Shalandis Wheeler Smith, and Jamar Jones) spoke passionately of their longing for freedom and a better life. As a guest guide Dr. Lauranette Lee from the University of Richmond provided historical context. Further unfolding the story of those who worked in the house “Complex Relationships of Servitude,” probed the choices facing Mary O’Melia (Valli Anne Trusler), an Irish immigrant, who accepted the job of housekeeper; James Jones (Joseph Rogers), a free man of color, who journeyed from Raleigh, North Carolina, to work as Davis’s coachman; and Ellen Barnes (Shalandis Wheeler Smith), an enslaved woman, hired out during the last year of the war to be a maid to Varina Davis. These people, despite their differing status, maintained a longtime relationship with the Davis family.
In the program “From Individuals to Symbols of Memory,” we pondered the importance of having a useable past while examining the lives of Jim Limber, the young African-American boy cared for by the Davises; Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis, the last child of Jefferson and Varina Davis; and Mary Elizabeth Bowser, the elusive spy that some claim was placed in the house by Elizabeth Van Lew. Leading us in this exploration were museum historian John Coski; former White House interpretation supervisor and Eleanor S. Brockenbrough Library manager, Ruth Ann Coski; and author Lois Leveen. Although Leveen’s book The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a work of fiction, her in-depth research on the spy, more accurately known as Mary Richards, has helped lead to a better understanding of this mysterious figure, now so much a part of Civil War lore. Demonstrative of the contemporary interest in Bowser, Quill Theatre offered to do a reading of an exchange between Van Lew and Bowser.
Dr. John W. Mountcastle, Brigadier General U.S. Army, retired, led us into the postwar years by covering the role of the U.S Army as they administered rule of Military District Number One. During Reconstruction, the house served alternately as a headquarters and as housing for officers until Virginia was readmitted to the Union in January of 1870.
With the army gone, control of the house reverted back to the city. Richmond leaders decided to use it as one of first public schools. This provided us with an excellent opportunity to discuss the past and present of Richmond’s public education. For this relaxed, conversational program, we had with us Cheryl Burke, interim 7th district school board representative for Richmond Public Schools and 2nd grade teacher Meaghan Rymer, also of RPS.
Rounding out the series, we held three programs focused on the house as a museum and restored home. John and Ruth Ann Coski joined us once again to introduce us to the women—most notably Isobel Stewart Bryan, Isabel Maury, and Janet Randolph Weaver—of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society, who rescued the house from demolition and founded the Confederate Museum. Building upon the establishment of the museum, we followed the transition of it from shrine to professional institution by inviting back Peter Rippe, the Museum of the Confederacy’s first professional director. Rippe recalled his shock at finding that peppercorns had been placed in cases to keep away pests and reflected on the momentous task that lay before him in turning a grandma’s attic-type environment into a museum. As a finale for the series, we invited Patti Loughridge, the second house curator and Robin Reed, education curator and later executive director, to discuss the restoration of the historic White House of the Confederacy in a program moderated by Ruth Ann Coski. Loughridge and Reed shared their experiences of researching the house and Davis family (including tracking down artifacts) and creating an interruptive plan, respectively. What stood out, in the final series of programs was the passion and devotion of staff members to the historic house.
Many thanks also goes out to our partners who supported this program series: The Valentine Museum, The Black History Museum and Cultural Center, Richmond National Battlefield Park, the Library of Virginia, Historic Richmond, The Women’s Club, President Davis Chapter, UDC, and VCU’s Public History Certificate program.