How should Virginia commemorate the American Revolution? Whose stories will be told and how as we approach the semiquincentennial in 2026? Why is expanding and complicating the narrative of the Revolution important?
These are questions we are asking ourselves at Encyclopedia Virginia as we embark on our new American Revolution project “By the People: The Inclusive Story of Revolution in Virginia, 1763–1800.”
They were also tackled recently at a discussion at Colonial Williamsburg hosted by the historic site, William & Mary, and the Omohundro Institute as part of their “For 2026” series on the Revolution and early America. (You can view the entire discussion here.)
Barbara Hamm-Lee of WHRO’s Another View spoke with Christy Coleman, the Executive Director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation; Ed Ayers, Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities at the University of Richmond; and Tommy Norment, the Minority Leader of the Senate of Virginia, about commemorating historical moments like the upcoming 250th anniversary of the American Revolution.
Each of the panelists shared their experiences with previous historic commemorations in the Commonwealth and reflected on how commemorations and the field of public history have evolved to reflect more diverse perspectives.
Norment, who chaired the committee that planned the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, recalled researching the 1957 commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. He was dismayed to learn that representatives of the Indigenous and African American communities were uninvited at the last minute from a state dinner with Queen Elizabeth II, who was visiting Jamestown for the occasion. This was emblematic of the overall tenor of the celebration, which was told largely from the perspective of white, male English settlers.
“I was determined not to perpetuate this,” said Norment. Instead, the planning committee empowered descendants of each of the three groups that were central to the story of Jamestown—Virginia Indian tribes, enslaved Africans, and English settlers—to determine how they would interpret their perspective on the history. Among the events that resulted were Tavis Smiley’s State of the Black Union conference and the American Indian Intertribal Festival. Recognizing that the legacy of the white settlement of Jamestown was painful to many, the anniversary was billed as a “commemoration” rather than a “celebration.”
A similar dynamic was at work with the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, according to Ayers, who is a former Virginia Humanities board member and host of our BackStory radio show and podcast. “All eyes were on Richmond as the former capital of the Confederacy,” he recalled. The events in the 1960s commemorating the centennial of the Civil War had been entirely segregated and infused with a Cold War triumphalism that obscured its legacy. “The most important thing we did,” said Ayers, “was that we rebranded it from a commemoration of the Civil War to a commemoration of the Civil War and Emancipation.”
The result was the first event in the nation, held at the University of Richmond, commemorating the eve of the Civil War. It told an integrated story, blending diverse narratives from the same stage. A 2015 event commemorating the liberation of Richmond featured re-enactors of the United States Colored Troops marching through downtown Richmond to Capitol Square and a commemoration of the end of slavery for those who never lived to see it.
Moving forward to 2026, Ayers expects continued refinement of how these historical moments are marked, such as examining whether “commemoration” is even the right mode of remembrance.
Coleman concurred that it was a mistake to see the varied narratives that create the story of historical commemorations as separate. “We need to see all of these as part of the whole, but voice—who is telling the story—is important,” she said. For instance, she noted that the story of Pocahontas and John Smith looks very different from the perspective of the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tidewater Virginia than from Smith’s perspective.
With history most often told from the perspective of the dominant group, the power of historical commemorations that embrace diverse narratives is the ability to give a fuller picture, said Coleman. This in turn can help educate people about the “distinctions between history, which is the forensics; heritage, which is what we create for cohesion; and memory,” she said. Public history such as commemorations help create new memories and experiences, she said “to infuse heritage with actual forensic history,” allowing the past to shed light on the present.