The Gift of Historical Imagination

“Historical imagination is the ability to imagine walking in the other person’s shoes,” says Alex Wise. One hundred and fifty years ago this week, his ancestor of the same name was a prominent and decisive voice in the debate that concluded with a 90-45 vote by the Virginia state convention to succeed from the Union. The state that had produced four out of the nation’s first five presidents became the leader of a rebellion to preserve the system of slavery.

When the Civil War broke out, Richmond was the third largest city in the South; without the industrial muscle of the Tredegar Iron Works, which produced more than one thousand cannon for the Confederate army, the South could not have the sustained the long, brutal struggle.

The former congressman and governor, H. Alexander Wise, became a general in the Confederate army and, at the end of the war, surrendered, bitterly, to his own brother-in-law, General George Meade. One of his sons was killed in action, another wounded, while a third succumbed to tuberculosis from sleeping on the wet fields. Wise also fathered a son by a slave woman. The boy, William Henry Grey, became a prominent churchman and a politician in Arkansas at the time of Reconstruction, where he strove in vain for equality for his people.

In 2003, the governor’s great-great-grandson told an audience of several hundred Richmonders that his family story illuminates the pain and sense of betrayal experienced differently by black and white southerners, which “hardened into racial resentments in our society that have lasted for generations.” But, said Alex, “I refuse to be captive to my ancestor’s experience….

Honest conversation about race and responsibility strips away isolating pretensions and allows us to feel and value the humanity of all…Life is too short to keep resenting each other for past betrayals. We must realize that then is not now and we are not they.

Resentment kills imagination, and without imagination there can’t be hope or action to build a better future.”

Alex’s imagination led him to create the American Civil War Center at the site of the old Tredegar Iron Works. Its unique mission is to tell the story of the conflict from the perspective of Unionists, Confederates, and African Americans.

Alex’s bold vision was that everyone would be challenged to walk in the other person’s shoes: “Tredegar will become a place first of dawning awareness, then of civil discussion, and finally of healing.”

Two months’ after the public telling of his family story – which I had posted on our website – Alex received a call from Texas. “I think we may be related,” said an African American woman who identified herself as Starita Smith, a descendent of William Henry Grey.

So began Alex’s discovery of the other branch of his family. When the center opened in 2006, ninety members, black and white, of the extended family were on hand to continue their discoveries.

Alex says that a huge lesson of the story is that “we have to stop demonizing each other based on race and look at one another as mutually connected human beings.” Race, economics, and politics have always been closely intertwined in America. Perhaps at this time of deepening polarization, when the issue of states’ rights has surfaced again over arguments about health care, environment, and other federal legislation, we might begin to build some trust by learning to walk in the other person’s shoes.