A major force in Virginia politics, he became the state’s first black state senator in 1969, the first black lieutenant governor in 1985 and then the nation’s first elected black governor in 1989. In this last post, he defied fellow Democrats by slashing state spending by $2 billion and not raising taxes.
His independent ways carried over when he was mayor of Richmond and got into a cat fight with the school board that cost $1 million in fees when he forced them out of their offices in City Hall. More recently, he has been an unpredictable political kingmaker — a Democrat but hardly a reliable one.
So it’s somewhat typical, and also a bit sad, that he has stumbled so badly on his National Slavery Museum near Fredericksburg. The project that he started in 2002 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Sept. 22 and has tossed Wilder into a really big mess. The project has $3.2 million in unsecured debts, $215,000 in unpaid local taxes and a $5.1 million court judgment won by architect C.C. Pei, the son of famed architect I.E. Pei, who designed the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art on the Mall.
Wilder has responded to the bankruptcy in his usual fashion. He won’t talk to the public or reporters. No apologies. Nothing.
To be sure, museums about slavery seem to be a hard sell, which is pathetic considering that we’re in the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and slavery was such a crucial and awful part of this country’s history. In Cincinnati, for instance, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center started out with high hopes about a decade ago. By 2008, however, poor attendance forced it to cut its budget by $5 million and cut 30 percent of its staff. It also shifted its emphasis away from the underground railroad to more modern issues such as trading in female sex slaves.
This may well be the last hurrah for the controversial Wilder.