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'Memory Wars' co-hosts discuss creating podcast, moving forward

'Memory Wars' co-hosts Mallory Noe-Payne and Michael Paul Williams, columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch
Matt Pochily
'Memory Wars' co-hosts Mallory Noe-Payne and Michael Paul Williams, columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch

In 2021, Reporter Mallory-Noe Payne went to Germany to explore how that country has come to terms with its past, and what it might take for America to do the same.

Since returning, Mallory and Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams have looked at how a community like Richmond might adapt and move forward.

Noe-Payne said she may have been a bit naïve when doing her research and spending a year in Germany, hoping to come back to the U.S. a step-by-step playbook about how this country can confront its history.

"The truth is that it’s just a lot more complicated than I anticipated,” she said. “The search for some sort of light bulb moment didn’t manifest itself that way. But that’s okay – maybe the light bulb moment is that it’s really hard.”

When looking at parallels between the two countries, Williams says the US has been “unwilling to walk the painful past that Germany has to the extent that it has.” He also convinced Noe-Payne to explore her own genealogical research.

“I suspect it that it would add a rich layer to our podcast,” he said. “And it did.”

Noe-Payne’s initial research turned up a photo of a German immigrant ancestor’s unmarked grave in a Richmond cemetery.

Upon coming to the U.S. her grandmother’s grandfather fought for the Confederacy in The Civil War.

But further work, through the Library of Virginia, turned up the name Piercen Payne, who came from a different branch of the family. In 1860, he was a farmer who owned land in Spotsylvania, and a slaveowner (he owned 6 people, but there were no names listed.)

“That was a bit of a gut punch,” Noe-Payne said. “It felt a lot different to know it concretely.” But she said there were also the limitations of this research, and hopes to know more what happened to these people.

An extended version of the interview

Part of “Memory Wars” is spent at Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground in Richmond, which has no gravestones, just a historical marker, at the site of an abandoned gas station along an interstate highway.

"We talk in the podcast off how memory is interpreted, how memory in some instances is transformed into myth, and how memory, at some times, is erased,” Williams said. “There’s probably no better example of that in Richmond.”

He said the two of them spent time on Monument Avenue as a counterpoint “how memory, in real time, is being transformed, we hope from myth to something more meaningful.”

Noe-Payne said those sites in Richmond stand in contrast to places she visited in Germany, including former concentration camp sites are used as “places as deep meaningful encounter and learning.”

Since the launch of ‘Memory Wars’, Noe-Payne said some listeners have been prompted to research their own family history.

RadioIQ will broadcast the series September 5-9 at 3 p.m. The podcast, distributed by PRX, is also available on this website, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.
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