Ten Years of 'Honest Conversation' in Richmond
01 February 2004

Ten years ago, Richmond, Virginia, caught the attention of the USA with its bold public acknowledgement of its painful history -a leading exporter of slaves to southern plantations for more than a century.

Ten years ago, Richmond, Virginia, caught the attention of the USA with its bold public acknowledgement of its painful history-the capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War was a leading exporter of slaves to southern plantations for more than a century-and a call for 'honest conversation on race, reconciliation and responsibility'. City and county residents of all backgrounds joined in an unprecedented effort to address the 'toxic issue of race' and build a vision of reconciliation. Their starting point was a conference on 'Healing the Heart of America' in 1993, co-sponsored by Hope in the Cities (HiC), the City of Richmond and Richmond Hill (an ecumencial retreat centre and one of HiC's many community partners).

Two major events were held in Richmond last November to mark the decade of work to free the city of its legacy of racial division. Valerie Lemmie, City Manager of Cincinnati, gave the keynote address at a breakfast forum for 650 people; and Rajmohan Gandhi, a visiting professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, spoke to hundreds more at a 'celebration of hope' at the site of a former Civil War gun foundry.

'I have great hope for our city because of Hope in the Cities,' said Mayor Rudolph McCollum, welcoming participants to the annual Metropolitan Richmond Day breakfast. James Dunn, president of the Chamber of Commerce and one of the breakfast co-chairs, added, 'Today's record crowd speaks volumes about Hope in the Cities' practical framework of principles and their impact on the lives of so many in this community.'

Ms Lemmie described how she was using the principles of Hope in the Cities to tackle 'by far the most difficult challenge' facing the leadership of America's cities: creating inclusive, just and constructive communities. Thirty local non-profit organizations and several major corporations supported the event which raised $60,000 for the work of Hope in the Cities.

Gandhi joined descendants of slaves and of slave owners to affirm a powerful movement for healing and reconciliation that began at the conference in 1993. The Tredegar Gun Foundry, which produced 1,000 cannon for the Southern Confederacy during the Civil War, provided an historic setting for a multi-media presentation of images of Richmond, accompanied by music from the interracial One Voice Choir.

The gun foundry is soon to become the site of the first national civil war museum. It will tell the story of the war from the perspectives of the North, the South as well as black Americans. This is the vision of Alex Wise, a descendant of a Virginia governor who was also a Confederate general. At the anniversary occasion, Wise stood with Carmen Foster, the great-granddaughter of a slave who worked in the foundry. 'Historical imagination is the ability to imagine walking in another person's shoes. It is Hope in the Cities' great gift to Richmond,' said Wise.

A well-known African American newspaper columnist said the city had moved from a place that 'discreetly oppressed its black citizens' to a place of real dialogue. 'We have struggled to move from powerful symbolism to transformative change. We have witnessed our politicians move from stark rancour towards honest attempts to reach consensus.'

Gandhi hailed Richmond's pioneering work of racial unity, and observed that after 9/11, 'America, and all of us, have to strive to heal and unite the world, and for a just and lasting peace everywhere, including in the Middle East.' In an interview earlier in the day, he said, 'The ordinary citizen can only do his or her bit in the community to which they belong. That's a lot. When a violence-prone area becomes peaceful, that has a tremendous effect on the world.'

There is a long way to go but every day more Richmonders are venturing beyond their comfort zones to engage in the difficult but vital work of reconciliation and justice.

Robert Corcoran, national director of Hope in the Cities, USA, (www.hopeinthecities.org) a programme of Initiatives of Change.

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