Grappling with the past: Historical society struggles to find its way

The historical society receives a subsidized lease from the city for its space in the former McIntire Library, across from Market Street Park. For the next three years, the society will pay $9,000 a year for the building, whose market value is estimated at $114,000 a year. PC: Staff Photo The historical society receives a subsidized lease from the city for its space in the former McIntire Library, across from Market Street Park. For the next three years, the society will pay $9,000 a year for the building, whose market value is estimated at $114,000 a year. PC: Staff Photo

By Ben Hitchcock

“I feel like I’ve been training for this one job for 30 years,” said Coy Barefoot when he took over as executive director of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society in April of 2018. In an interview with ilovecville.com, the local author and media personality expressed his desire to rebrand the organization and create “a whole constellation of museums that will offer really rich experiences.”

Eighteen months later, Barefoot had resigned from the position. The society released a statement on October 12 thanking him for his work as executive director over the last year and a half.

Multiple members of the society’s board of directors declined to comment directly on Barefoot’s resignation, citing a policy that forbids discussing personnel decisions, and Barefoot did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He told at least one person, who later described the conversation to C-VILLE, that his pay was being cut amid fundraising difficulties.

Barefoot’s departure is the latest shake-up at an institution with a tumultuous recent past.

In 2017, the historical society found itself in an unwelcome spotlight when UVA professor Jalane Schmidt, hoping to conduct research in advance of the June Ku Klux Klan gathering in Charlottesville, was stymied in her request to view a collection of KKK robes and membership certificates owned by the society. “Just a few days before the Klan was coming, these people were so recalcitrant,” she recalls.

The society declined to reveal the names of the owners of the robes in its collection (they were finally revealed in May of this year). And it came under more criticism for failing to respond to the August Unite the Right rally that happened right outside its front door.   

At around the same time, the society was seeking to renew its lease. Since the 1990s, the organization has been given a deal on rent at 200 Second St. NE, a column-fronted hall (formerly a whites-only library) owned by the city, just a few yards from the statue of Robert E. Lee. ACHS’ rent is well below market rates, and that generous lease raises the stakes for everything that happens at the society.

The increased scrutiny over the lease renewal revealed years of dysfunction and declining membership. At a City Council meeting that September, Councilor Kathy Galvin called the nonprofit “an absolute mess,” and a local historian accused the society of having an antagonistic relationship with the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

“It’s a shame that we basically have a black historical society and a white historical society, but that’s the way it’s played out,” former ACHS executive director Douglas Day later told C-VILLE, referring to the Jefferson School and ACHS.

The ACHS “just served as a genealogical society for white people, that’s what it seemed like,” Schmidt says.

Director Steven Meeks abruptly resigned in February 2018, and Barefoot was hired that April.

Under Barefoot, the historical society met nine of 10 goals set for it by City Council, and in February of this year agreed to a three-year lease with two one-year renewal options.

The market value for the building is estimated at around $114,000 per year. The historical society will pay just $9,000.

The current physical condition of the premises reflects an institution in transition. A recent visit revealed an empty exhibition room, maintenance equipment scattered around the main hall, and a cart of stackable plastic chairs in the middle of the lobby. The artifacts on display include a rusty cavalry spur from the Civil War skirmish at Rio Hill and a 1920s doll owned by a girl who died of pneumonia.

That collection doesn’t stand out in Charlottesville’s crowded historical tourism landscape. Shelley Murphy, who was elected chair of the board six months ago, conceded that it has been difficult for the society to attract visitors and philanthropy dollars. “Not that it’s competitive, but it is competitive,” Murphy says. “There’s I think 800 or more nonprofits in the area. For people coming in from out of town or even local, you have Monticello here, you’ve got Montpelier here, and you also have Highland.”

Despite these problems, there are reasons to believe that the organization can be turned around. The last two years have seen a near-total overhaul of the society’s board of directors. In addition to Meeks’ resignation, notable departures include Ken Wallenborn, a retired doctor who spent years arguing that Thomas Jefferson did not father the children of Sally Hemings.

“There seem to be more bona fide historians being asked to be involved, like Phyllis Leffler, Shelley Murphy…Certainly more women and people of color,” Schmidt says of the recent changes.

UVA history professor John Edwin Mason says he’s been “unofficially invited” to join the board. “I think that the society can play an important role in the reexamination of our history—something that’s happening in many places right now,” he says. “There’s tremendous energy out there at the moment.”

In order to survive, the historical society will need to shed its image as an insular and inaccessible club.

Barefoot made motions towards that end, renaming the institution the Charlottesville Center for History and Culture and launching a new website. But the site’s featured blog has not been updated since October 2018, and the sign in front of the building, as well as the Facebook page, still say Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society.

Board chair Murphy says Barefoot “started that change movement” and the society will build from there. “My hope coming in to the future is that we’re building local community partnerships,” she says. “We don’t want to just be sitting here and not serving.”

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