Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder has proposed a new site for a national slavery museum: A Richmond building central to the city’s black history now owned by Virginia Commonwealth University.
Wilder’s announcement on Thursday came as a surprise to university officials.
The building, in the heart of downtown, once housed First African Baptist Church, long a focal point for the black community in Richmond, and is a site on the city’s historic slave trail. Wilder proposed a museum that would be state-owned and funded by the state and private donors.
In a casual conversation with VCU’s president at lunch last week, Wilder mentioned the idea of using the building for a national slavery museum, university spokeswoman Anne Buckley said in a statement. “No commitment was made, and no formal or informal discussions or negotiations are underway,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, who has pushed to mark the city’s slave history as part of a controversial development project and had lobbied the governor for the funding, said only that city officials had not had formal or informal discussions with Wilder about this.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has consistently supported state funding for a slavery heritage site, his spokeswoman said. She did not respond to a question about whether the governor would support Wilder’s proposal.
Wilder has been talking about creating a national slavery museum for 20 years, but the project foundered in Fredericksburg when millions of dollars in debt and taxes piled up. Most of the land donated for the museum is expected to be sold in June, clearing the national slavery museum organization to move forward with another plan.
Wilder’s proposal comes as momentum is building to fully explore and dramatically mark Richmond’s role as an epicenter of the slave trade in the mid-1800s. The city has budgeted $5 million toward the slave trail and efforts to highlight a notorious slave trader’s prison. But the mayor’s proposal has sparked protests because of its ties to a stadium and other development that opponents say would desecrate the history there.
That history is intensely personal for Wilder, who remembers walking to the church for Sunday school as s a child. His father was one of the trustees who approved the building’s sale. His grandfather attended the church as a freed slave. By some accounts, Wilder said, a slave climbed onto the roof to wave a flag for freedom when Union troops marched in.
Wilder said that neither he nor his foundation would control this proposed slavery museum; they would raise money and help however they could but let the university and the General Assembly determine how to run it.