It's been a little more than a year since former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder laid out his plan to open a national slavery museum in Fredericksburg, triggering a debate that flew from the little Rappahannock River city, across the South and overseas. Now that some of the pieces are in place -- a site, an architect and key staff -- comes the hard part: What should the museum be?
This time last year, the discussion was about whether and where the museum should be.
The National Slavery Museum faces a daunting philanthropic challenge. Executive Director Earl Yates said officials are just beginning the effort to raise the $200 million cost in a tightening economy. And Wilder announced last week that the facility now is aiming to open in 2007, three years later than he had initially forecast.
But it is becoming clear that the project is moving forward.
On Wednesday, at the first major public meeting on the museum in nearly a year, Wilder announced that Joseph Harris, noted Howard University historian of the African diaspora, will serve as chairman of the museum's advisory committee, and that the architect probably will be Chien Chung Pei, whose father, I.M. Pei, designed the National Gallery and the pyramid at the Louvre, among other famous structures. Harris and Chien Chung Pei were at the meeting at Fredericksburg's Mary Washington College.
The project has had its critics. Some black activists have argued that any definitive institution about slavery belongs in the nation's capital, not in Fredericksburg, 50 miles to the south. Some historians said that Jamestown, where African slaves first landed in the New World, would be more appropriate, or Richmond, the second capital of the Confederacy.
Fredericksburg residents, including Mayor Bill Beck, have questioned whether making the museum part of a commercial development that will include golf courses and shopping cheapens the subject of slavery. Fundraisers who have been working for years to open a black history museum on the Mall in Washington said they feared that Wilder's project would dilute resources for both.
And skeptics of all races have wondered if the museum would do more damage to racial harmony than good.
But even for those who fear the addition to traffic in Fredericksburg and wonder how the town's rich history will be portrayed, active opposition has turned into wait-and-see.
Now the discussion turns to a complex set of historical and philosophical questions. How is slavery defined? When did it end? The industry of selling human beings didn't stop with Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Should the timeline end with the Civil Rights Movement, or do the concepts of social and economic slavery mean that it should continue to the present?
"And how broad will the coverage be?" asked Yates, who used to work for the federal agency that promotes sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa and was director of the Peace Corps in Africa. "America? The world? If we talk about slavery in the United States, it's hardly separable from slavery in the rest of the Americas."
Fredericksburg residents have expressed concern about how the museum will handle the history of their city, which runs from Colonial times through the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, when it was part of the Confederacy. Relics are everywhere downtown, from the home of George Washington's mother to an 18th century apothecary to a slave auction block, which now sits in front of an Italian restaurant.
"Some people think a slavery museum might be demeaning and would rather have something more upbeat," said Fredericksburg native John Goolrick, 67, a former political reporter for the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, who attended segregated schools and whose grandfather fought in the Civil War. He favors the museum and says the city should promote itself more as a tourist destination -- for its entire history, the noble and ignoble.
The Rev. Lawrence Davies, a Baptist pastor who became the city's first black City Council member in 1966 and went on to become its first black mayor in 1976, serves on the museum's advisory council. He says that the museum should continue to look at slavery through the present and should include people who were smuggled into the United States as indentured servants.
"What we can learn from past motivations for slavery can have some effect now," he said. "This is still reality."
Museum officials are forming a panel to decide such issues. They also are aiming to make the museum a major international research center on slavery, where scholars and artists and students could come; their work would feed exhibits and academic courses taught around the world. They said annual symposiums on slavery -- like one scheduled in March -- would keep the museum's exhibits fresh.
"We're still at the all-things-are-possible stage," Yates said.
Organizers are well aware of local concern that the museum will stir racial tensions. At Wednesday's meeting, Pei said the structure would be "forward-looking -- not something just looking back."
Yates said the same.
What does that mean?
"We wouldn't be able to pretend that we know. And we don't know when we'll know," Yates said.
Harris, who will help steer many of these discussions, said the museum has to begin with some basic questions about the African slaves brought to the United States -- their tribes, language, religion and culture. The central question, he said, is: "How did those Africans become Americans?"