by Prof. John Kneebone

Christy Coleman is the CEO of the American Civil War Museum and, as such, is one of Richmond’s—and maybe the country’s—most prominent public historians. Yet, her road to public history had twists and turns.

She grew up in Williamsburg and wanted to be an actress but decided to become a lawyer to make society better and to support herself until her acting career took off. With that in mind, she entered the College of William and Mary in the early 1980s, with a major in Government and a minor in Theater. One of a small number of African American students there then, she liked the people she met but was never very happy with the institution. She dropped out after two years and set out to make a performing career.

To pay the bills, she worked as a costumed interpreter for Colonial Williamsburg, which she’d been doing since finishing high school. Coleman always enjoyed History, and interpretation honed her performance skills, too. She says that she learned improvisation and gained experience in reading audiences.

She did a fair amount of professional “voice work,” which she enjoyed, but roles for black actresses then were few, and too often stereotyped. Coleman took a job at a museum in Baltimore, thinking that the location would make it easier to reach auditions in New York City. She found her museum fenced off from the surrounding neighborhoods, and she began efforts at community engagement, learning as she developed youth programs in the museum and educational programs for the nearby schools. Not only did she find that work fulfilling, but it also led her to apply for and receive a fellowship for young museum professionals through the Smithsonian Institution.

Coleman made her decision: she returned to Williamsburg and enrolled at Hampton University, studying an undergraduate interdisciplinary program and headed for its M.A. program in Museum Studies. That program no longer exists, but then it offered an Archival track, a Collections track, and an Administrative track, which Coleman chose. Coursework in accounting and finance had obvious application, but Coleman says that only later experience proved the value of the required course in museum architecture and the practicum requirement to develop a museum exhibition. The program also mandated an internship, and Coleman protested, to no avail, that she was already working fulltime as an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. Her advisor placed her at CW’s development office, which Coleman says is a great location for an intern at any institution to observe the operations as a whole.

Coleman’s Master’s Thesis was a proposal for reimagining the African American History programming at CW, based on notes and memoranda she’d been preparing for some time and drafted in a frenzy across one weekend! Her advisor told her to submit the proposal to her supervisors at CW, and they liked it, too. She stayed at CW, eventually becoming Director of Historic Programs (covering all interpretation and tours in the historic area). In 1999, she became CEO of the Wright Museum of African American History, in Detroit, and then came to Richmond in 2008 as head of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar (ACWC).

In 2013 Coleman helped manage the merger of the ACWC and the Museum of the Confederacy, two institutions with different histories, missions, and collections, to form today’s American Civil War Museum. She co-chaired the city of Richmond’s Monument Avenue Commission in 2017-2018 and in December 2018 was awarded an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters by VCU.

Public history is all about audiences, and Christy Coleman has spent a career communicating effectively to audiences of all sorts and often on controversial topics. She credits youth services at her church with reducing fear of public speaking, and her performing experiences, including interpretation at CW, developed her skills. At CW, she learned that historical presentations to the public had to be grounded on the documentary record and sound scholarship. Coleman says that she also studied motivational speakers to understand better how to hold an audience. She does not read her remarks, preferring instead to use points written on notecards to stay on topic. Most of all, she prepares by crafting a narrative—beginning, middle, end—that she keeps in mind as she speaks. Public history students would do well to go to the C-SPAN website, find videos in which she is featured, and study her performances.

The American Civil War Museum (https://acwm.org/) includes the White House of the Confederacy, located in the midst of VCU’s MCV Campus, the American Civil War Museum at Appomattox, and the main museum site at Tredegar, where the new museum building opened in May 2019.  

-John Kneebone teaches public history and the history of the American South