Sep 26, 2022 - Politics

The fight over history at the Virginia Executive Mansion

A historic photo of the executive mansion taken in 1890.

The Executive Mansion, circa 1890. Photo courtesy of The Valentine

Descendants of enslaved Virginians who worked in the Executive Mansion say they want their ancestors acknowledged during public tours at the home.

What's happening: The chair of the mansion's descendants committee, Gayle Jessup White, told the mansion's director last week she and other descendants were troubled to learn tours under Gov. Glenn Youngkin's administration don’t mention enslaved workers.

  • "The descendants feel very strongly that these stories must be included," said White, an author who works at Monticello and was appointed to the committee by former Gov. Ralph Northam.

Catch up fast: Last year, Northam's administration began giving updated tours to school groups that included the history of enslaved workers who built, lived and worked at the home before the Civil War, per reporting by VPM's Ben Paviour.

  • That new material has not been included in tours under the Youngkin administration, VPM reports.

The other side: Youngkin's mansion director, Georgia Esposito, defended the administration during last week's meeting of the Citizens' Advisory Council on Furnishing and Interpreting the Executive Mansion.

  • She stressed that the tour given to visitors under Youngkin was the same as the public tour given under past governors.

Yes, but: That's because the mansion was still closed to the general public as a result of the pandemic when the Northams left office, David Cary, who was chief of staff to first lady Pamela Northam at the time, tells Axios.

  • While tours were unavailable to tourists and other walk-in visitors, Cary said the new tour was completed and given to school groups during private visits that were arranged in advance.

What they’re saying: In a statement, first lady Suzanne Youngkin focused on the family’s efforts to overhaul the art displayed on the walls, which she said now includes a diverse range of Virginia artists.

  • “When we stepped in, we saw glaring voids in the stories being told through art and as such, we now feature works from nine museum partners celebrating every region of the Commonwealth as well as special pieces from black, Indian and immigrant Virginians,” she said.

During last week’s meeting, White urged the Youngkins to work with the mansion advisory committee to update the tour, calling the omission of slavery out of step with major historical sites.

  • “There’s not a single tour that goes on at Monticello that does not include some history, some background, about the enslaved people, and that should be the case here,” she said.

Why it matters: One of Youngkin's first acts as governor was to ban public schools from teaching what he called "inherently divisive concepts," prompting fears his administration was attempting to whitewash history books.

  • His administration's handling of tours at the Executive Mansion offers up-close insight into how he thinks complex histories should be taught.

What's next: Esposito told White that the Youngkins hoped to expand tours and introduce an expanded virtual version on the mansion's website. But said she could not make any firm commitments about what would and would not be included.

  • "It's hard for me to say, but the goal is to tell a much fuller story," she said.

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