When the opportunity to work on Virginia’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War was offered to Amanda Kleintop, ’11, she couldn’t turn it down. The Philadelphia native had fallen in love with the city of Richmond during her years here as a student, thanks to the city’s complex history. Now, she will play a role in how that history is remembered.
Kleintop began working part time with the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission in fall 2010. She helps organize conferences and edit related books, while assisting with the creation of a museum exhibit that will travel throughout the state. After graduation, she will take the job full time.
It’s the perfect fit for the history and leadership studies major, and not only because history is her thing. She also gets to work right in the heart of the city — in the General Assembly building on Capitol Square — surrounded by the institutions she’s partnering with in her work and the Richmond residents whom her work will impact.
A sense of place, Kleintop says, is what makes history relevant to people today — and the context for today’s world is what makes it important. In many projects and groups at the University of Richmond, she has drawn on a historical narrative that spans from the Civil War and Reconstruction to the civil rights movement in order to contextualize attitudes and inequalities in today’s U.S. society. Eventually, she plans to begin an academic career in a history doctoral program.
Kleintop’s love for history blossomed during her first semester, when she took a class with the University’s president and historian of the South, Dr. Edward Ayers. “That’s when I began to understand some of the intersections between race and history and culture that made it more interesting to me,” she says.
She then took an internship at the University’s Digital Scholarship Lab, studying U.S. voting patterns and abolitionism in the antebellum era. The following summer, she took part in a three-week “course in motion,” studying and touring civil rights sites in the South with Dr. Melissa Ooten.
This year, she is the resident assistant for Ooten’s living-learning community, Demanding Equality: Activism in the American South Since Reconstruction. At the beginning of this course, Kleintop says, students struggled with the difficulty of reading firsthand accounts of lynching, but that changed with time. “The class began to empower a lot of people,” she says. “That was where the conversations moved on to — what can we do in Richmond?”
This question led Kleintop and the other students to work on projects in the community, including volunteering at a middle school in the city’s Northside. For Kleintop, the experience has reinforced connections between today’s inequalities and events as far back as the Civil War.
“You can see the issues of race and historical memory and how all of that goes back to the Civil War and emancipation,” she says. “Today, in Henderson Middle School, we discovered that 85 percent of students in Richmond Public Schools are black, but 57 percent of the city of Richmond is black. So you’ve got about a 30 percent disparity there, of more black students in these public schools, which begs the question, ‘what happened?’
“A lot of that goes back to the civil rights movement, with white flight out of city schools, in response to desegregation. And the civil rights movement goes right back to emancipation. A lot of scholars stress how African-American communities learned a lot of those organizing tactics from emancipation and Reconstruction and all of that kind of culminates up to the civil rights movement. It’s a long narrative — it’s not just two places in time.”
Kleintop says this narrative is not unique to Richmond, or even to Southern cities, pointing out that Philadelphia public schools have many of the same problems, and the cities share a similar history of tumultuous race relations.
Her work with the commission is already showing her that attitudes are changing — at Civil War and Emancipation Day on April 16, Kleintop was excited by the variety of people who came out to explore everything from the United Daughters of the Confederacy to a slave jail site. “It reminds people that this is something that happened under their feet,” she says.