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.
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 .