Atlanta’s Cyclorama Had the Black Role in a Civil War Battle All Wrong. She Set About to Fix That

Max Blau, Washington Post, March 26, 2019

The first time Calinda Lee saw the “Battle of Atlanta” Cyclorama, she rolled her eyes in disbelief. The colossal 133-year-old panoramic painting of the Civil War battle featured thousands of human figures — soldiers of the North and South fighting, falling, fleeing, along with sundry attendants of the battlefield: stretcher-bearers, cooks, orderlies and more. Yet in the throng of faces surrounding her, there was only one that looked like hers. Only one was African American.

Lee, a 47-year-old historian and descendant of slaves, has long known that blacks played a far more extensive role in the decisive 1864 Union victory. {snip}

{snip} The South was just entering the early days of a revived debate over whether to reframe or remove vestiges of the Confederacy. Lee realized that it was possible to change the perception of a relic that thousands of schoolchildren visit annually. “I wanted to get it right,” Lee said, “not just with the painting, but the surrounding experience that would help people understand the process of historical mythmaking.”

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By 1974, Atlanta was a majority-black city, and taxpayers had soured on sinking public money into the anachronistic artifact. But Maynard Jackson, the city’s first black mayor, recognized the Battle of Atlanta’s role in liberating his ancestors. Facing backlash from constituents, he orchestrated an $11 million effort to restore the painting and the city-owned museum that housed it.

“Maynard recognized the Cyclorama not for what it was at the time, but for what it could be,” says his widow, Valerie Jackson. “He recognized it could be an educational piece using art, history and imagination — as well as facts — to re-create a significant turning point of Atlanta and of the nation.”

The Cyclorama museum slowly began to tell a new story of old Atlanta. African American tour guides noted historical inaccuracies about black people on the battlefield. Camille Russell Love, an arts official who oversaw the Cyclorama, diversified the museum’s programming to center it more on the 19th-century black experience, and to tie that experience to Atlanta’s civil rights legacy.

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{snip} She thought that beyond an exhibit of images and artifacts, the AHC should incorporate overlooked voices deconstructing the myths baked into the Cyclorama.

She contacted experts like Harris and Frank Smith, a Georgia native who oversees Washington’s African American Civil War Museum. Both recommended that the AHC emphasize the roles black people played in securing their liberation.

Over the past year, as preservationists restored the work, Lee helped craft the fuller story of the way painters, promoters and politicians had continually reshaped history on the canvas. In the exhibit “Cyclorama: The Big Picture,” visitors now learn how African Americans were erased from the story of the battle, with an interactive guide noting plainly that hundreds of black stretcher-bearers on the battlefield in July 1864 are missing from the panorama. {snip}

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