Map quest: Committee seeks to create historically accurate tour of downtown

Court Square will be describe more accurately in the new brochure. Photo: Skyclad Aerial Court Square will be describe more accurately in the new brochure. Photo: Skyclad Aerial

For years, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society and the city’s visitor’s center have been distributing a pamphlet that guides guests on a walking tour of downtown Charlottesville’s historic sites.

There’s one problem, though: the map hasn’t been updated in ages. Robert Watkins, the city’s assistant historic preservation and design planner, says the old map is full of “interpretive flaws.”

The current iteration of the guided tour still refers to Market Street Park as Lee Park. The Stonewall Jackson statue is noted as “one of the world’s finest equestrian statues,” rather than a monument to the Confederacy. The brochure takes visitors past the former Eagle Tavern without mentioning that it was the site of multiple sales of enslaved people.

When the city ran out of that version of the pamphlet, the Historic Resources Committee declined to print more, voting instead to establish a Historic Resources Walking Tour Map Subcommittee to create a new tour course. That subcommittee had its second meeting last week.

“We’ve been told that the walking tour map is very popular,” said committee member and former Charlottesville vice-mayor Dede Smith after the meeting. “As our narrative is expanding and becoming more inclusive, it’s vital that the document that most tourists see reflects our larger, more accurate story.”

That’s easier said than done. Local history often relies on scant sourcing; in this case, the subcommittee will be forced to build its story out of a sundry collection of oral histories, dubiously sourced guidebooks, and old newspaper advertisements. 

Downtown Charlottesville has evolved over the centuries, through years of formal and informal segregation. For much of the area’s history, “you have two societies functioning side by side,” said committee member and local journalist Jordy Yager.

One pamphlet is a small space for all that history. “There’s no way you can be comprehensive in this,” Smith said during the meeting. “The balance problem we have is—it’s 250 years. It’s a lot of time.”

Each entry in the brochure is only a few sentences long, so every word has to be perfect. The subcommittee debated whether those sold in Court Square be referred to as “people,” “persons,” or “men, women, and children.” They pondered whether it was accurate to say that the Nelson House “was built by John A.G. Davis,” even though the wealthy professor likely never hammered a single nail. 

Diligently asking these small questions is the only way to build an accurate large-scale narrative. “It’s better to tell good history, but delayed, than bad history promptly,” Yager said. 

Efforts to re-contextualize Charlottesville’s downtown are ongoing. UVA professor Jalane Schmidt and Jefferson School head Andrea Douglas have led their own walking tours of local Confederate monuments since last year. 

The old brochure has 36 locations. The subcommittee has identified an additional 20 or so that might be worthy of inclusion. Winnowing down that list is one of the biggest challenges ahead of the group in the next few weeks. 

“One of the really wonderful things about Charlottesville is that people are interested in history here, both people that live here and people that come here as tourists,” Yager said. “It’s an opportunity to help set that historical record more holistically. For a variety of reasons, some of that history has not been told as enthusiastically. We have a great opportunity to popularize that and bring that into a more mainstream experience.” 

The group hopes to have a new map ready for distribution by summer at the latest.


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