Former Va. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder’s slavery museum project stalled in Fredericksburg

September 18, 2012

A decade ago, a real estate company donated 38 acres of prime land near Interstate 95 in Fredericksburg to a nonprofit group designing a slavery museum. The Silver Cos. built hotels and a conference center on land nearby and worked to attract other tourism businesses, banking on the powerful draw of a national museum envisioned by former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder.

All that’s on the land now is a small garden, long since overgrown with weeds.

The museum was never built. An attorney acting for the museum filed for bankruptcy last September, after the city stepped in to seize the land for unpaid taxes. In August, she asked that the bankruptcy case be dismissed.

The full payment of the debt to the city “can be achieved in days,” Sandra Robinson wrote in court documents, and the museum project would begin fundraising again. The judge granted the request to dismiss the case.

A month later, Fredericksburg Treasurer Jim Haney has not heard from anyone associated with the museum or received any money toward the more than $300,000 owed to the city.


The Spirit of Freedom sculpture garden, part of the planned National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va. The garden is in disrepair with broken fencing, damaged signs and overgrown grasses. (Bonnie Jo Mount/WASHINGTON POST)

Wilder and Robinson did not respond to messages seeking comment.

“We don’t understand what Governor Wilder is doing,” said Jud Honaker, president of commercial development for the Silver Cos. “He hasn’t shown any effort to make this thing a reality since he announced it, practically. I don’t know why he keeps perpetuating this disaster of a story. It just makes him look bad.”

Like many who believed in the importance of creating a museum to tell the story of slavery in this country — from supporters who wrote checks, to collectors who donated artifacts, to an artist who created a massive sculpture for the museum grounds — Silver Cos. officials have been left waiting.

“We were excited to have the prospect to get such a museum,” Honaker said. “It certainly would have been a traffic generator for our project,” Celebrate Virginia, hundreds of acres in Fredericksburg that they hoped would jump-start the city’s efforts to promote itself as a destination and bring in tourist dollars.

The company watched potential development go to other locations when the museum project stalled, Honaker said.

Wilder, who made history as the country’s first elected black governor, announced 20 years ago that he would build a museum. Celebrities, historians and wealthy donors stepped up to help plan and fund the $100 million project.

In 2008, years after the museum had been scheduled to open, Wilder explained the lack of progress by saying that the economic collapse had slowed fundraising and asked that the donated land be exempt from local property taxes. Fredericksburg officials declined.

In bankruptcy filings this summer, Robinson proposed selling 20 acres of the donated land, relaunching fundraising efforts and beginning regular payments to Pei Partnership Architects, which is owed more than $5 million.

Attorneys for Celebrate Virginia South asked that the judge move to essentially liquidate the museum effort. They called the plan “fatally flawed,” for reasons including a lack of any cash funds, restrictions on the use and sale of the land, and unrealistic projections of raising millions of dollars in the next few years.

Robinson wrote that donors had pledged money if the organization were no longer in bankruptcy, that the proceedings were costly and that the organization had taken steps to resume fundraising.

The city has resumed its efforts to sell the property at auction, a lengthy legal process which will take months, Haney said.

The land was given with a restriction requiring that it be used as a site for a museum, and the architecture firm has a lien against the land to ensure payment of the debt.

The museum is prohibited from filing for bankruptcy for another year. But if the city doesn’t complete a tax sale in time, Honaker said, “he could file for bankruptcy again, probably dragging it out another year.

“We’d certainly like to get it resolved one way or another,” Honaker said, “and either build the museum, or stop kicking the can down the road.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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