No Stranger to Controversy!

A Valentine Intern Explains the Research Process for our new “Controversy/History” series

When I began my internship with the Public Programs department at the Valentine, I was eager to begin the research for a brand new program that was going to take the place of the long-running Community Conversations. The Valentine had just announced “Controversy/History”, a new community engagement series that aims to explore contentious, present-day issues by comparing historic debates with modern data. The first event takes place on November 7 and focuses on voting rights and redistricting. This was my first assignment as an intern, and I was just as nervous as I was excited.

I knew the research I would be conducting for this new series would be feasible thanks to the vast historical resources at the Valentine and the surrounding Richmond area.

Through many hours of research I was able to delve into fascinating stories, dissect them and illustrate the kind of nuanced historical narrative that would help put a contemporary twist on timeless historical topics. This is the goal of the “Controversy/History” series and is central to the mission of the Valentine. Through these conversations, we aim to use history as a bridge to help the Richmond community better understand our uncomfortable past, grapple with our present and create a better future.

X.49.37.43, Women’s Suffrage Rally at Capitol, 1916, The Valentine

During my research, I was focused on being as inclusive as possible when gathering data to ensure a well-rounded portrayal of the various historical narratives. It was particularly important to make sure that I took multiple viewpoints into account and kept an open mind when investigating these topics. It can be easy to label one historical figure a villain and another a hero. I wasn’t interested in something so simple.

So I delved into the readily available resources here at the Valentine, including archival photos, documents and other items in our extensive collection. I was also encouraged to reach out to other historic locations and scholars in the area in order to develop the most expansive, nuanced history of the voting rights debate in Richmond. This allowed me to network and collaborate with various experts and historians, explore the Library of Virginia’s collection and speak with Maymont’s curatorial staff. All of these elements, along with the encouragement of the Valentine, helped me improve my research techniques, discover new resources and become a better public historian.

I’m hopeful that our new “Controversy/History” series will offer insight into the past while also engaging the public with the issues we face today. From voting rights and redistricting on November 7 to monuments, immigration and transportation, the stories we’ll be exploring in the coming months will serve to remind us not only of the progress we have made, but how much work we have yet to do.

Jessica Davis is a Public History graduate student at the University of Richmond. She graduated with her B.A. in History from V.C.U. and has been working as an Educator at the Valentine since 2015.