December 24, 2013

THREE MONTHS after he took office in 2010, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell plunged headlong into a public relations debacle of his own making by omitting any mention of slavery from a proclamation he issued during Confederate History Month. After some ham-handed damage control, he apologized for airbrushing history, amended the proclamation to refer to the “abomination of slavery” and said he would be a “champion for racial reconciliation” as the state prepared to commemorate the Civil War’s 150th anniversary.

Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, has gone some distance to make good on that promise. Recently, he announced that his final budget, to be submitted to the General Assembly before he leaves office next month, would include $11 million for the construction of a museum and other sites to commemorate slavery, all in Richmond.

The symbolism of choosing the capital of the Confederacy as the site is potent. The idea is to locate most of the new facilities just blocks from the state capitol and the governor’s mansion, on and around the site of Lumpkin’s Jail, a notorious 19th-century facility where slaves were warehoused, auctioned and abused. Known at the time as “the devil’s half-acre,” it was one of the largest slave-trading hubs outside of New Orleans.

Richmond city officials have talked for years about building slavery heritage sites, including a museum. Nothing has happened, perhaps partly in deference to former governor L. Douglas Wilder, the grandson of slaves, who for more than a decade led planning for a U.S. National Slavery Museumin Fredericksburg. Mr. Wilder’s grandiose plan came to naught; land donated for the museum is empty and in tax arrears, and the project is moribund. No major museum in the country is dedicated to telling the story of the “peculiar institution” that touched, twisted and ruined so many American lives.

Mr. McDonnell’s budget proposal would jump-start a plan to right that wrong. The $11 million from the state would be seed money given to Richmond, which would contribute funds of its own; private donations would also be needed to complete the museum and a pavilion at the archaeological site of Lumpkin’s Jail, among other venues. It is an important project, and a timely one as the nation continues to mark the Civil War’s sesquicentennial.

Mr. McDonnell’s record as governor on issues involving race is mixed. A measure he signed to toughen the state’s voter ID requirements, pushed by Republicans, will have the effect of impeding voting by minorities, who are less likely to have identification. However, he has done far more than any previous governor to restore voting rights for some nonviolent felons who have served out their sentences. A disproportionate number of these convicts are minorities, and they will be the chief beneficiaries.

Mr. McDonnell leaves office Jan. 11. His final year has been marred by state and federal investigations into his relationship with a favor-currying businessman who plied the governor and his family with gifts and cash. Against those headwinds, Mr. McDonnell has been busy trying to burnish his legacy. On the issue of racial reconciliation, he’s made good progress.