Two decades later, donors wonder what happened to plans for slavery museum

February 11, 2012

Nearly 20 years ago, former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder announced that he wanted to create a museum that would tell the story of slavery in the United States. He had the vision, the clout, the charm to make it seem attainable, and he had already made history: the grandson of slaves, he was the nation’s first elected African American governor.

He assembled a high-profile board, hosted splashy galas with entertainer Bill Cosby promising at least $1 million in support, accepted a gift of some 38 acres of prime real estate smack along Interstate 95 in Fredericksburg and showed plans for a $100 million showstopper museum designed by an internationally renowned architect.

And then . . .

“Governor Wilder disappeared,” said Rev. Lawrence Davies, the former longtime mayor of Fredericksburg who was a member of the board. Davies stopped getting notices about board meetings, and when he tried to reach Wilder, he never heard back.

“No one could ever get through to him,’’ Davies said. “We didn’t know what to think.”

It wasn’t just board members and city officials who were left to wonder. There are donors, too, asking what happened.

“I trusted them,” said Therbia Parker Sr., a general contractor from Suffolk, Va., who gave the museum nearly 100 artifacts he had collected over 40 years, including rare and invaluable pieces such as leg shackles, a handwritten bill of sale for slaves, and a collar with a plantation name and slave number on it.

“I’ll never forget the first time I saw a newspaper with ads for runaway slaves,” he said. “The reality of it: This really happened.” He wanted future generations to feel that history as he had. But he doesn’t know where the artifacts he donated are now. And he is furious that the museum, slated to open in 2004, was never built.

“Black people deserve better than this,” he said.

In recent years, Wilder has issued statements and spoken on video about his commitment to creating the museum, but he has repeatedly declined to answer questions from a wide variety of people.

Wilder and his attorney did not respond to numerous phone calls and e-mails requesting comment. When asked in person about the museum by a reporter at the school named in his honor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Wilder pleasantly responded, “No, no, I’m not talking to anyone.”

The U.S. National Slavery Museum filed for bankruptcy this fall. Firms have filed claims totaling more than $7 million. The city of Fredericksburg has threatened to sell the land because of more than $200,000 in unpaid real-estate taxes. Officials have asked the court to either liquidate the organization or to appoint a trustee to oversee its finances.

In Bankruptcy Court in January, an attorney for the museum said an accountant would have a plan by the end of February to reorganize, pay creditors, and renew efforts to build the museum.

Grand plans

In 1993, Wilder announced he wanted to create a museum that would teach future generations about slavery. There was debate over where to put it. But a gift of about 38 acres in Fredericksburg from the Silver Cos. focused efforts along the Rappahannock .

The presidents of Howard and Hampton universities, renowned historian John Hope Franklin, Cosby and business leaders joined the board in the 2000s. They spoke of raising $200 million and erecting a museum that would rise up alongside I-95 with a giant slave ship replica looming inside a glass atrium.

They collected artifacts such as a spinning wheel, an auction poster, a collection of slave songs of the Georgia sea islands and a handwritten order for the arrest of a slave accused of plotting to murder his owner.

They planned interactive exhibits with sections on the transatlantic slave trade, the slave experience in the United States, and life after emancipation.

But some people began asking questions early on. “We offered our assistance ,” said John Fleming, director of the International African American Museum planned for Charleston, S.C., who at the time had just stepped down as president of the Association of African American Museums. “They didn’t seem to be interested in . . . partnering with other museums or using consultants who have been in the field for years. They just went off on their own.”

Christy S. Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, said: “I personally contacted them, by e-mail, by phone call, by letter, saying, ‘I’d like to contribute to what you’re doing, I want to help you, I’d love to donate, please let me know where and how I can send this money.’ I did not get a response.”

The museum opened an office in Fredericksburg, hired a director and made big plans. Wilder was passionate about the idea and eloquent in making the case. They worked with fundraisers and a design firm. Architect C.C. Pei designed a building.

“It was a very exciting project to be involved in,” said Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, the grandson of former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who was on the board.

Folk artist Willie Tarver donated a sculpture of a former slave market near his home in Georgia. Some black people had been hung there, his widow Mae Tarver said. She would like to have the piece back. “They can’t just have it,” she said, “if they’re not going to open a museum.”

Nancy Norton, a family friend, said she has written to Wilder repeatedly and never heard back. “I thought the governor of Virginia would be a little more forthcoming than this,” she said.

‘There was nothing’

Jacob Gelt Dekker, a Dutch entrepreneur who had created a museum about the transatlantic slave trade in Curacao before joining the board, was excited about the project when he flew to the United States with a historian from Europe to tour the museum site with another board member. Then they got to Fredericksburg.

There was no construction. None of the donated artifacts were in the nonprofit group’s office, either, he said. “There was nothing. It was shocking, it was embarrassing.”

Many people said Wilder became increasingly difficult to reach after he was elected mayor of Richmond in a landslide vote in 2004.

In 2008, Wilder said publicly that fundraising had slowed after the economic crisis and that he had less time as mayor to devote to the effort, but that they had $50 million and were moving forward.

The museum’s federal tax returns through 2007, the last one filed, did not reflect donations of that scale.

Wilder asked the city council to grant the land a property tax exemption, but the request was denied.

That fall, Vonita Foster, the executive director, stopped responding to Dekker’s messages, too, Dekker said. “We all become extremely worried and puzzled,” Dekker said.

She stopped working in late 2008 and the office was quietly shuttered.

Foster did not respond to messages seeking comment.

“I’m not aware of anyone from our organization talking to Governor Wilder in the last four years, probably,” said Jud Honaker, an executive with Silver Cos..

Honaker said that Larry Silver, the company’s chief executive, who had been a good friend of Wilder, formally resigned from the board more than two years ago.

Some board members left out of frustration. Several said Wilder was always reluctant to ask people to donate money or ask for help from President Obama and other leaders. And he didn’t seem to want to collaborate with other museums, they said. The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which breaks ground on the National Mall this month, seemed an obvious partner.

Out of money

If Wilder disappeared, he vanished in plain sight; as mayor, then as a professor with national speaking engagements, TV appearances, a busy Twitter feed.

A year ago, Wilder wrote on his blog that the board was “undaunted” and that they would build the museum. He wrote that donated artifacts would be kept safely until the museum could open. “It is too important to stop now.”

But after years of fundraising, the organization apparently has no money; the primary asset is the donated land, which is assessed at $7.6 million.

The city’s attorney questioned why a federal tax form from 2005 appeared to show a $1.6 million discrepancy in the organization’s cash balance; an accountant recently said the museum had spent money on work that was not reflected in the filing. A lawyer said they were working to complete the missing federal tax returns and restore their ability to legally raise money in Virginia.

Meanwhile, Parker is tired of waiting. His contract stipulated, he said, that if the museum didn’t open, the artifacts would be returned to him.

“This collection was bigger than me,” he said. “ . . . You’re talking about building something, and you don’t even have a foundation.”

Staff researcher 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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