Get our free newsletter
Visit Celebrate Virginia, your summer playground for golf, shopping, and slavery!
Photographs by Charles Steck
Cruising for fun on I-95 usually means a 90-minute ride to Paramount’s Kings Dominion. Where else can you climb a replica of the Eiffel Tower, plunge over a waterfall without suffering a concussion, and shoot out of a big bad fake volcano at 70 miles an hour—all in a single afternoon?
But former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder wants to throw a detour in the family cow path about 50 miles south of Washington. It’s called Celebrate Virginia. A sprawling 2,400-acre “Visitor’s Campus” on the outskirts of Fredericksburg, Celebrate Virginia will have everything you and your loved ones could want: restaurants, shops, hotels, even a convention center.
There will also be three championship golf courses. And after 18 holes, you can take a tour of the interior of a re-created slave ship and, with the help of virtual reality technology, ponder what it might be like to lie in your own excrement for three months while you are transported thousands of miles from home to a place you have never seen but where you will live for the rest of your life as human chattel.
And that’s only the beginning, for there are 380 or so years of the history of slavery in America to see. Yes, alongside the resort pleasures of sylvan Virginia, Wilder wants to create a monument to the most painful, prolonged saga in American history. It will be called the National Slavery Museum at Fredericksburg. Last month, Wilder pledged that some portion of the museum will be open in 2003.
Fredericksburg store owner Joe Fulginiti is having a hard time picturing it. “Where is it going to go? Between Chuck E. Cheese’s and Zany Brainy?” he asks.
Culture, not materialism, is the centerpiece of Celebrate Virginia, says Larry Silver, CEO of Silver Cos., the project’s developer. Before Wilder came along, Silver says, he looked into the possibility of building a “Native Virginians” museum but didn’t get enough interest from local tribes to get it going. He adds that there’s still talk of a “Virginia Music Museum,” but the biggest draw by far is likely to be the National Slavery Museum.
The museum is a fitting legacy for Wilder, the grandson of slaves and the first elected black governor in U.S. history. He’s been trying to break ground on his proposed slavery museum since 1993, the year before he left office. Silver, a longtime political supporter of Wilder’s, offered 22 acres inside the Celebrate Virginia site for the museum last spring after Wilder mentioned during a speech that he would consider Fredericksburg as a site. Wilder had already been considering sites in Richmond and Hampton. Petersburg put in an offer as well. A bidding war among the cities ensued. Silver approached the Fredericksburg city council about putting up $1 million for the museum if Wilder chose to locate it on the property Silver was offering. With the majority of the council supportive of the grant, Wilder announced in October that Fredericksburg would be the site. Ever since then, the juxtaposition of shackles and suburban shoppers has provoked protests from Washington to Richmond.
“I don’t think slavery should be recognized in a Disney-like setting,” says Richmond City Councilmember Sa’ad El-Amin. El-Amin heads a city commission that oversees slavery-related sites and has been at the center of recent public debates over the display of Confederate symbols in Virginia.
Even Bill Beck, the mayor of Fredericksburg, has his misgivings: “The objection here is to using a slavery museum like an anchor store for a shopping mall. There’s no question there will be an economic boon to wherever [the slavery museum] arrives. But do you do it based on economic-development potential? Museums are not sited that way.”
None of the criticism dissuades Wilder and his fellow organizers, who have told residents that as many as 2 million people could visit the completed museum each year—the same number that visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum off the National Mall. Sounding like a real estate agent, Wilder notes that the Fredericksburg site “is five minutes from a bus station, 10 minutes from a train station, and an hour drive from Washington and Richmond.”
But Wilder’s is not the only local attempt at laying out the epic history of slavery in stone. There are at least two efforts to build a museum on slavery on or close to the National Mall, one led by local architect Richard Smith III, another by Paul DuBois, a former executive director of the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation Inc. And just like Wilder’s, both efforts seek to create the finest permanent, unblemished, historically accurate museum on slavery in the United States.
Washington arguably has more historical, symbolic, and practical justifications as a site for a national slavery museum than Fredericksburg. Like Fredericksburg, Washington is close to other slavery-related sites, such as Civil War battlefields and the plantations of slave-owning presidents. It was also the site of the great congressional battles over slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War. And unlike Fredericksburg, Washington was once a thriving slave market. Until slavery was outlawed in the District, in 1850, slaves were held in pens on the Mall before being sold at auction. As the nation’s capital, the city attracts 21 million visitors a year and has the infrastructure to accommodate them. And it’s home to some of the nation’s best universities and scholars on slavery.
But a national museum on slavery will likely open in the outer reaches of the D.C. suburbs before one ever opens here, because building public monuments is fundamentally about power. That’s the reason no eloquent arguments about why Washington is a better site for a national slavery museum will ever sway Wilder. As political analyst Larry Sabato puts it, Washington is “alien territory” for the former governor. Wilder is smart enough to stay on the side of the Potomac where he wields the greatest influence. And in the eight years he has been out of office, he hasn’t lost his knack for raising money, the sine qua non of memorial creations.
They say the winners write history—and for better or worse, that means Doug Wilder.
In a corner of the African-American Civil War Memorial Museum at 12th and U Streets NW is a bill of sale for an Alabama slave girl who cost $600. Next to it is a handwritten pass for a “free colored boy” and a letter from an irate slave owner refusing to pay for a recently acquired female slave. Under the documents, a pile of rusty shackles lies unceremoniously on the floor.
There are a few more panels on the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade nearby. Throughout the building, of course, are the stories of former slaves who became Union soldiers. You can also go across the river to the Frederick Douglass House in Anacostia, where you can read about the famed statesman’s journey from slavery to freedom, and see artifacts, such as the walking stick that Mary Todd Lincoln gave him after her husband’s death.
That is about it for permanent exhibitions on slavery in the nation’s capital.
Across the country, various African-American history and culture museums have displays on slavery. The favorite showpiece appears to be slave ships, which never fail to appall tourists with their gruesome human-cargo-carrying grids. But there is no major institution devoted to the “Peculiar Institution,” one that really lays out the variety of the experience from the sugar plantations of Louisiana to the mansions of Manhattan, colonial Delaware to the antebellum South. Meanwhile, an entire government apparatus—the National Park Service—preserves and disseminates the history of the Civil War. Civil War battlefield signs dwell in incredible detail on regiments, flanks, body counts, and the bravery of the soldiers who fought on both sides. Only recently have such sites begun to make reference to the larger historical forces that led to the war.
The cause of a discrete slavery museum has long been overshadowed by the push for a broader African-American history museum on the Mall, which presumably would devote at least a wing to the story of slavery. Tourmobile owner Tom Mack, Rep. John Lewis (D.-Ga.), and Smithsonian curators, among others, have striven to create such a museum for almost 20 years.
In 1984, Mack spearheaded an initiative in this cause. He teamed up with the Smithsonian, which, in 1989, had created the Center for African-American History and Culture to lay the groundwork for a museum. Mack’s effort effectively died in 1992, thanks to shrinking support among the Smithsonian leadership and in Congress, and an open conflict with the Association of African American Museums, whose struggling member institutions feared being dwarfed by a national museum (“Case History,” 2/6/98).
Then in 1994, after Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) killed legislation for a museum, the Smithsonian gave up on an African-American museum on the Mall as well, by merging the Center for African-American History and Culture with its locally focused Anacostia Museum. The Smithsonian’s withdrawal of support for an African-American heritage museum is still a sore point for proponents. “There’s always reasons why we can’t build this museum,” says James Early, director of cultural studies and communications in the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. “Money is always the question. But instead of grabbing the reins of that, we find ourselves in a reactive mode.”
Lewis, one of the champions of the civil rights movement, has at least managed to get the federal bureaucracy to the starting gate. Each year for the past 13 years, Lewis has introduced legislation to create an African-American heritage museum; in December, Congress finally agreed to create a presidential commission to come up with plans for the project. Lewis advocates putting the museum in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, which currently houses officers and temporary exhibitions.
The improved prospects for an African-American heritage museum on the Mall, however, haven’t ended the clamor for a slavery museum, whose advocates still insist that the epic of slavery demands its own stage.
“It’s an extraordinary failing in our public landscape that we don’t have a slavery museum,” says Richard Rabinowitz, a historian and president of History Workshop, a museum consulting firm in Brooklyn. “A PBS show like Africans in America can come and go. But there isn’t a really well-supported public institution that tells the story accurately and that will always be there on the front burner.”
Supporters of a national slavery museum, including Wilder, DuBois, and Smith, cite the Holocaust Museum as proof that such a museum is viable. Constructing the Holocaust Museum cost $168 million. About $10 million consisted of small donations from average citizens. The museum got some unwanted attention for its use of “ethnicated” lists of Jewish surnames to track down potential donors: some Jewish leaders reportedly couldn’t help but note the irony of the museum’s using technology similar to the kind Nazis used to sort their subject populations by race. But all in all, the museum was able to rely on the generosity of private individuals as well as corporations and foundations. Supporters raised a total of $165 million, including 67 million-dollar gifts, over 15 years. Although the federal government didn’t contribute a penny to the Holocaust Museum’s construction, it now supplies more than half of the museum’s annual $57 million operating budget. Even with federal support, however, the museum must continue to raise $21 million a year in private funds.
Wilder, who wants to raise $200 million, has said he would like to rely solely on private funding. And he may have no choice but to do so. The federal government and the Smithsonian will be devoting their resources in the coming years to developing the national African-American heritage museum. While historians may passionately argue for the need to support both, budget-conscious government officials might not agree. “We want to support any museum willing to come here,” says Chris Bender, an aide in Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ Office of Planning and Economic Development. “But we have to walk a fine line between courting people and new museums and doing what’s best regarding the recommendations of the federal government.”
But relying on the private sector is tricky. Christy Coleman, president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit, says African-Americans haven’t traditionally given to museums. But she adds that the notion of their having no money to give is an antiquated stereotype. They haven’t given, she says, because they haven’t been approached the right way.
“Despite the disparity in wealth between blacks and whites, there is growing wealth in African-American communities,” says Coleman. “Black philanthropy is not weak. It’s different. Everybody says, ‘Black people don’t give,’ but African-Americans give away billions of dollars a year. They give to a specific project or through a church. Maybe the strategy is to go give a presentation at a church.”
The big bucks, of course, aren’t going to be found on a collection plate, but in the boardrooms of corporations and corporate foundations. In recent years, corporations have warmed up to the cause of interpreting slavery and African-American history for a mass audience in order to burnish their image with African-American consumers. The AT&T Foundation has supported Colonial Williamsburg’s African-American Interpretation and Presentations Department, which was responsible for adding slave quarters and a slave auction to Colonial Williamsburg’s repertoire of historic replicas and re-enactments. And the Chrysler Corp. has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the endowment of the Wright Museum.
Corporate giving, though, has a record of ruining great causes. Under construction in Cincinnati is the National Underground Freedom Center, a museum that will feature exhibits and re-enactments based on stories from the Underground Railroad. The museum, set to open in 2004, is the brainchild of the Cincinnati chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice, a 95-year-old organization dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry, and racism in America.
So far, the Freedom Center’s development staff has raised $72 million out of a goal of $110 million from the likes of Proctor & Gamble, Boeing, Federated Department Stores, and Toyota. And historians and museum professionals working on the project say that corporate funding has already compromised the museum’s presentation. “The corporate money shapes the message. It’s moved in a direction that I’m not comfortable with,” says one historian involved in the project, speaking on condition of anonymity.
When industry gets involved in history, the message can start sounding like a commercial for the Olympics. The Freedom Center, for example, will feature a gizmo called the People’s Theater, in which visitors, after walking through an exhibition on the history of enslavement in America and even watching actors depicting real stories from the Underground Railroad, will watch videotaped retellings of “real personal stories of achievement over adversity around the world.” They will then move on to a space where they are supposed to gather and talk about “contemporary issues of freedom.” At the end, visitors will supposedly feel better, thank their sponsors, and go home.
Others don’t blame corporate money explicitly but complain that the desire for an unadulterated recounting of history has in some ways become subordinate to the desire to promote a more uplifting theme of racial reconciliation. One critic likens it to an “ideological training ground.”
Howard University African-American Studies Chair Russell Adams isn’t surprised by any of these arguments. And he worries that corporations protective of their public image will be too squeamish to support a museum on a subject as contentious and depressing as slavery. “What corporation is going to want to put their name on that? What are they going to say? ‘This auction block brought to you by GM’? ‘Merck did the cooking’?”
On a mild November evening, the auditorium inside the James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg is almost full. Fredericksburg’s finest have assembled to find out just what they’re getting themselves into.
The sound of chatter falls to a hush as Mayor Beck, Wilder, and Michael Neiditch, the National Slavery Museum’s chief consultant, take their seats on stage. Wilder introduces Neiditch as a former executive with the Holocaust Museum who, as it happens, also wrote his college thesis on slavery. Neiditch has come to lay out the concept for the project. He runs through a pastiche of themes and elements for the museum: “The fears slaves felt, the disbelief, especially [among] the first slaves brought here in the 17th century. The extraordinary story about their faith and how Christianity became important to them.” The list grows to include the rise of the abolitionist movement; the voices of slaveholders, judges, politicians, and clergy; the role of government; the world of a slave child; and the family unit.
“But what will permeate the museum is a constant affirmation of [slaves’] humanity,” Neiditch says. “When one leaves [the museum], one will understand this institution in all its awfulness.”
The audience is respectfully silent. But Wilder and Neiditch know their critics are here. In fact, some of them were out in the lobby before the show, handing out leaflets protesting the museum’s siting in box-store land. So before sitting down, Neiditch is sure to issue a few firm declarations: The museum will be a separate entity from Celebrate Virginia. Celebrate Virginia will simply be “a neighbor.” And there will be “a dignified buffer” between the museum and the hotel-retail area. (The Silver Cos. in December agreed to donate an additional 13 acres for the buffer.)
Wilder takes the mike last. He’s the closer. He tells what is by now an old story about how he got the idea for the slavery museum while on a 1993 trade mission to Libreville, Gabon. There, he visited a site where enslaved Africans were held before being shipped out to the New World. “As I sat staring through that window of no return, I felt a feeling of uplift, a feeling of overcoming obstacles,” Wilder says. “The thought of my forebears leaving from this place and having one of their descendants become the governor of a state they may have gone to—that is a long distance to have come.”
The way Wilder tells it, there’s almost a sense of destiny about building a museum on slavery in Fredericksburg. But how he and his museum ended up here was actually less a product of fate than of expediency. A few months earlier, Fredericksburg wasn’t even a contender to be the museum’s site. When Wilder first announced his intention to build a slavery museum in Virginia, he had his eye on Jamestown, where the first Africans arrived in the British colonies in 1619. Wilder formed a planning committee for the Jamestown Slave Museum, which quickly won a state-funded grant for $100,000. The group began negotiating with the Gospel Spreading Church, a D.C.-based congregation that owns land there. The deal fell through after a split in the church leadership stymied talks.
Two years ago, Wilder began looking at other sites—and to shake the public money tree some more. Wilder has been an informal adviser to outgoing Gov. Jim Gilmore, helping him spin his way through controversies over the annual proclamation of Confederate History Month. In 2001, with Gilmore’s support, the state legislature gave the Jamestown Slave Museum a $1.1 million infusion of cash, all of which will go toward developing the museum, Wilder says. Neither the board—which, board memos indicate, currently consists solely of Wilder and William Harvey, president of Hampton University—nor Neiditch receives a salary. (Ruby Martin, Wilder’s former secretary of administration, stepped down from the board last fall.)
Wilder reportedly also received early backing from the likes of Bill Cosby and Cicely Tyson. (Neiditch says both celebrities are still committed to the project.) Respected slavery scholar and Duke University historian John Hope Franklin, who headed the advisory board of President Clinton’s initiative on race, signed on as an adviser. But Wilder’s ace in the hole seems to be Jacob Gelt Dekker, a retired Dutch plastic-surgeon-turned-philanthropist who has built his own slavery museum/resort complex in the Dutch Antilles. Dekker, who lives in Key West, Fla., pledged to lend Wilder some of the slavery-related artifacts he had collected, among which is the hull of a slave ship.
Meanwhile, in Fredericksburg, the Silver Cos. were already developing Celebrate Virginia. According to promotional material, company officials estimate that Celebrate Virginia will generate $22.6 million annually in state tax revenues, $171.3 million annually in wages, and more than 10,000 new jobs. But perhaps Silver wasn’t confident in the development’s allure, for the day after Wilder mentioned last April that he would consider putting his museum in Fredericksburg, Silver whisked him in a car by the 22 acres of land Silver was offering, on the shores of the Rappahannock River. The land is pristine. All that is there now is a billboard for Shoney’s.
Wilder returned in August, so that he and Silver could make their pitch to the city council. Silver would donate the land if the city would give Wilder’s museum $1 million for operating expenses as a gesture of commitment. The city will recoup the money by setting up a special tax district for Celebrate Virginia. Wilder says he explained that he didn’t want anyone to think he was favoring Fredericksburg—which was a nice way of saying he didn’t want to upset the bidding war he had started. The council obliged and voted to close the meeting. A reporter for the local newspaper, the Free Lance-Star, was chased from the room. The paper sued the city for violating state freedom-of-information laws. A judge ruled for the Free Lance-Star and ordered the city to pay the paper’s legal costs. The surrounding controversy lent the museum project the taint of a backroom deal.
Adding to this image of mutual back-scratching has been Wilder’s pledge in November to help Silver get a new interchange to siphon traffic off I-95 directly into Celebrate Virginia. Opponents of the museum site speculate that Silver really donated the land to get Wilder’s help with the interchange. There already is one exit off I-95 that feeds directly into Central Park, Silver Cos.’ behemoth mall, which is adjacent to the Celebrate Virginia site.
In the minds of some Fredericksburg residents, Wilder’s museum has become so entangled with Celebrate Virginia and Larry Silver that they’re inseparable. Shopkeeper Fulginiti corrects any references to “the museum” by saying, “You mean ‘the interchange’?”
Tensions over the museum were building all summer between the museum’s supporters, who include much of the city’s African-American population, and opponents, who include residents worried about suburban sprawl.
Most of the city council members seemed happy enough with Silver’s terms. But they also asked Wilder to give the November presentation to residents before officially voting to put up the money.
The night of the big show, the audience seems mostly appreciative of Wilder’s reassuring tone. Afterward, he poses on stage with three kids wearing green T-shirts that read: “Museum Yes!”
“Isn’t that cute? That’s a great photo op, mmm-hmmm,” says Councilmember Ambrose Bailey, who helped organize the green-shirted contingent. “I think the presentation went very well,” he adds. “We expected more critics, but it looks like they stayed home.”
Wilder’s pitch to the Fredericksburg folks is reminiscent of a visit he paid to Northern Virginia with Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke in 1992 to announce that the Redskins would be moving to Alexandria. Wilder and Cooke had negotiated the deal secretly for months. A Washington Post account at the time says that once Cooke even showed off his wardrobe to Wilder, who “cooed admiringly.” Cooke, Wilder told the Post, “‘wants to know what it is that can be done and does it. That’s me. I am like that.’” But back then, as now, local residents weren’t too keen on the idea. The deal collapsed. Cooke ended up making a deal with the District, which fell through later as well.
Wilder’s penchant for secrecy and backroom negotiating obviously hasn’t diminished. In the months leading up to his announcement of the museum’s site, he refused to reveal the names of his fellow board members, of any financial supporters or advisers.
Neiditch is equally cagey, even about his own credentials. Neiditch is currently a vice president of the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science. He is a former director of endowment for the Holocaust Museum and a former president of the Jerusalem Foundation Inc., a social-welfare organization that focuses on improving quality of life in Jerusalem. All in all, a respectable enough resume. But at the presentation, when asked by a local reporter how much he has raised for the Holocaust Museum, he replies curtly, “A lot.”
At the presentation, Wilder finally admits that he hasn’t yet raised any private money for his museum. “I am not going to ask anybody to give 10 cents unless we’re in possession of a property,” he explains. Now that he has property, Neiditch says, fundraising will begin in earnest, as will the debate over the museum’s content. Wilder says he hopes to convene a symposium of slavery experts at Howard University in February.
At this rate, it’s hard to believe Wilder can deliver on his pledge to be open for business next year. But Sabato doesn’t foresee a replay of the Skins debacle of 10 years ago. This time, Wilder doesn’t have to deal with the likes of Cooke, and despite the fact that he no longer holds public office, his clout is in many ways undiminished. “Virginia governors are limited to one term. That means governors come and go quickly. Most retire to corporate boards. In Wilder’s case, he’s never gone,” says Sabato. “Wilder continues to dabble in politics in a major way. No election goes by without him moderating a debate or without there being a big buildup over who he’s going to endorse. No one else has that cachet.”
In the spring of 1997, Richard Smith III trudged up to Capitol Hill to find some friends. Soft-spoken and serious, Smith, 37, is more comfortable working at a drafting table than glad-handing politicians. But for the past six years, Smith, with the help of his wife and a few friends, has been promoting the idea of a national museum on the National Mall devoted to telling the story of slavery in America.
At first, Smith went door to door inside congressional office buildings, passed out his card, and tried to get in to see members, their staff, or anyone who would listen. After a few tries, he says, he learned the drill: “A pat on the head, a shuffle of feet, and out the door you go.”
The chief of staff for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) at least indulged Smith, sitting with him for a half-hour. But, in the end, “the meeting turned into a lecture about how the congresswoman could not actively support a cause, no matter how just, without ‘the people’ behind it,” Smith recalls. “So she invited me to come back when millions supported what I was doing.”
Waters’ aide failed to suggest what any
K Street lobbyist could tell Smith: Raise some money. Lawmakers don’t banish reliable contributors from their offices. And Smith needs all the political muscle he can muster for the spot he’s eyeing for his museum: 14th Street and Constitution Avenue—”a poetic pivot” he calls it, across from the Department of Commerce and next to the National Museum of American History. The museum he envisions might even be connected underground to the Museum of American History, or be an addition on to it. The slavery museum would also be more than the sum of its permanent exhibits. It would be a center for research, not just for scholars but for average people wishing to trace their genealogy.
The Mall is the only place for a national slavery museum, Smith argues, “not because all of the other museums are there, but because we need to talk about slavery,” he says. A national museum on slavery in Washington, he figures, is potentially the starting point of a national conversation about race. Smith has no problems with Wilder’s effort, but he regards any museum in Virginia as strictly a regional satellite of a museum in D.C.
Smith knows that securing a place on the Mall is no easy task. He’s watched Rep. Lewis’ 13-year ordeal. So after his own efforts on Capitol Hill failed, Smith tried appealing to the Smithsonian. In October 2000, he met with Spencer Crew, then director of the Museum of American History, and a few other Smithsonian officials. “They were very receptive. But it was like preaching to the choir,” Smith recalls. “They said stuff like, ‘Man, don’t you think we want this to happen?’ But they didn’t have the clout or whatever to make it happen. They weren’t telling me anything I didn’t know.”
“I was a little disappointed,” Smith continues. “My goal was to get some funds to continue pursuing this, but that didn’t happen.” Smith estimates that he has spent $2,500 out of his own pocket on expenses such as brochures and materials for architectural models. He guesses that he and his friends have expended another $7,500 in labor. A few months ago, Smith officially incorporated the U.S. Slavery Museum Project as a nonprofit, but he admits he hasn’t raised a dime for the cause.
Smith is going to have to do better than that if he wants his museum to be more than just a dream. According to museum consultants, building a state-of-the-art museum is not unlike building a brand-new medical facility. At about $1,000 a square foot, a museum that offers, say, a two-hour experience is going to cost about $200 million.
If you’re going it alone, like Smith, you have to incorporate as a nonprofit and assemble a board of directors, including as many big names as you can convince. You have to pick a site, an architect, and a design. If you have any idea of what you’re doing, you’ll get the local community involved. Together, you could spend years hashing out details such as when the museum’s story line should begin and end (at the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction, or Jim Crow?), how explicitly you can depict brutality without alienating people, how to bring to life the years for which there are fewer images and artifacts. For the actual exhibits, you’ll need to round up historians and curators willing to consult on your project. The latter will have to scour the globe for artifacts.
Few people have experience raising the kind of money it takes to build and sustain a major museum. Paul DuBois, 56, thinks he can. He says he’s founded 21 nonprofit organizations, and he headed the effort to erect a memorial to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Tidal Basin for four months two years ago. For the past three years, DuBois has been promoting the idea of a nationally designated museum on slavery in Washington. He envisions a 170,000-square-foot space—about the size of the Holocaust Museum—that he estimates would cost up to $210 million to build. But in light of the recent controversy over the planned World War II memorial, DuBois is looking at sites just off the contentious turf of the Mall. And he’s trying to enlist the help of local government.
In December, he says he met with officials in the city’s Office of Planning to discuss his proposal. He says aides in that office are “terrifically supportive.” But in recent weeks, aides to the mayor have talked not of DuBois’ but Wilder’s museum as a certainty.
Mixed reception by local pols aside, DuBois still insists that for symbolic reasons, D.C. is the right place for such a museum. Only in Washington, he says in the brochures promoting his effort, can American slaves be “memorialized” as they deserve.
Unlike Smith, however, DuBois seems to relish going on ad nauseam about the intricacies of chasing big donations, if not specific donors. In one of his brochures, he boasts that “fundraising among major individual donors and corporations is underway and fundraising success is now anticipated from seven large national foundations.” He says he has “prospects” for $21 million in funding, but he will describe his potential benefactors only as “three of the nation’s largest public foundations.” He’s mostly spent the past year gathering marquee names for the “councils” that will eventually lend his project legitimacy—and open wallets. There’s a council of prominent black clergy and a council of renowned scholars. So far, he can report that University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin, a distinguished expert on slavery, has signed on. For his council of clergy, he says the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and the Rev. Derrick Harkins, pastor of the 19th Street Baptist Church, have agreed to co-chair. But he doesn’t care to divulge any more names until he’s filled out all his lists.
“I really don’t have anything for the press right now,” he says. Wooing foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals is a delicate process, he explains, one that above all requires discretion. DuBois told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in August that he himself would not be talking to the press if Wilder hadn’t made such a public fuss.
With all his gabbing, Wilder has gone about the whole process all wrong, DuBois says. The National Slavery Museum at Fredericksburg, he predicts, will never be built. He has called Wilder’s nine-year search for a site “desperate.” And even if Wilder manages to get the museum built, DuBois predicts it will be an unqualified failure.
On this last point, DuBois may be onto something beyond trash talk. Museum-development consultants agree with him that the projected
2 million people making their way down the interstate to a museum in Fredericksburg will be mostly no-shows.
Frank Smith has an inkling of what it would take to build a slavery museum in Washington. He first proposed his African-American Civil War Memorial in 1991 and promised that it would be open by 1996. Five years passed, and the D.C. Department of Public Works, the general contractor on the project, still hadn’t finished, forcing Smith to postpone the opening of the memorial at least five times (“Forgotten Again,” 9/3/99).
In a ritual that drew derision citywide, Smith twice threw elaborate celebrations commemorating the monument’s completion—with no monument. And after each delay, he had to raise more money to cover the increasing construction costs. The statue was unveiled in 1998, but the entire monument wasn’t completed until 1999.
Eight years. Just to build a semicircular wall that holds a bronze statue of several African-American Union soldiers called The Spirit of Freedom and 155 stainless-steel plaques bearing the names of African-Americans who served in the Civil War. The entire memorial isn’t much bigger than the Metro entrance it abuts.
And Smith didn’t have to contend with costly particulars like installing a special air-handling system to preserve artifacts. He didn’t have to make sure his display galleries had at least 22-foot ceilings. He didn’t have to worry about what should go in the gift shop or how to configure the cafeteria—just a few of the things you have to fuss over when building a 200-square-foot museum.
Of course, Wilder has advantages unavailable to Smith, like a national reputation, rich backers, and, well, power. “He has enough standing and friends to get the money,” says Smith. “I think Wilder will build his museum.”
The question is whether he can maintain it. Wilder says he’ll rely on loaned artifacts to fill his exhibitions. Competition for African-American artifacts among museums in the United States is so fierce that smaller museums find themselves outbid all the time. Just look what happened to the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955. It was snapped up at auction in October for $492,000.
The bus’s proper home, of course, is the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, but it now rests at the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., which beat out the Smithsonian for the bus. Known as the country’s “largest indoor/outdoor museum,” the Ford Museum wanted the bus because Parks moved to Dearborn in the ’60s, and its acquisition of the artifact attests to how easily fragments of African-American history get spread across the country.
So the real hunt for dollars begins after all the ribbons have been cut and donors feted. “Then it becomes a competition,” says the Wright Museum’s Coleman. “You have to rely on the same magnanimous sources to sustain you.” One recent casualty of the fallout is the Museum of African American Art in Tampa, Fla., which closed in June 1998 for lack of support after opening only seven years earlier.
Wilder’s project may not even last that long. Perhaps the neighboring big-box stores, which can count on repeat visits by bargain-hungry shoppers, will outlast the National Slavery Museum. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.