Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell on Thursday proposed providing $11 million for a slavery heritage site in Richmond, saying it would “serve as a critical historical reminder that we must be ever vigilant for the cause of justice and freedom.”
Soon after the announcement, former state governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) said in an interview that he would begin planning a scaled-down version of his longtime vision of a national slavery museum for the site.
“We would like visibility from I-95 particularly,” Wilder said Thursday afternoon. But he said he hadn’t told the museum board yet. “I’m fast. . . . I’m not that fast!” he said. It was unclear exactly what role Wilder would play in the creation of the heritage site.
McDonnell’s proposal, to be included in his upcoming budget, includes $1 million for the city’s slavery heritage trail, which marks such sites as a landing place for ships packed with slaves; $5 million for a pavilion at the site of the notorious slave prison Lumpkin’s Jail; and $5 million for a slavery museum. The city of Richmond would have to provide land and an additional $5 million.
In a statement, McDonnell (R) said a historic site would boost Virginia’s growing tourism industry. “It will bring thousands of visitors to our state’s capital, continue to tell the story of Virginia and America, as imperfect and tough as it is, and spur economic development and job creation.”
For the city’s slave trail commission, it’s a chance to move forward with an idea that has been talked about for years. “This investment is so important because we’ve never fully or properly told the story of what happened in Richmond,” Mayor Dwight C. Jones said in a statement.
Wilder, the grandson of slaves and the nation’s first elected black governor, has been promoting the idea of a national slavery museum for 20 years. “It’s important to the nation. There are too few people who know how the nation was founded, too few people who know what we escaped from.”
But despite high-profile support — comedian Bill Cosby has been a board member, for example, and a developer donated 38 acres of land in Fredericksburg — the project has stalled. In recent years, the U.S. National Slavery Museum organization has been saddled with millions of dollars in debt, its tax-exempt status has been revoked by the IRS, and its land seized for auction by the city of Fredericksburg over a mounting unpaid property-tax bill. That auction has been postponed because of a potential sale to an organization that wants to bring minor-league baseball to the city.
“We were rather grandiose when we went to Fredericksburg,” Wilder said, with plans for a $100 million museum designed by one of the world’s leading architecture firms. “We scaled back considerably. We’d have to consider, at the board level, what we want, how we want it, how we want to project it.”
One idea, he said, is to build a replica of a slave ship that would draw attention to the museum.
Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond), who has worked for more than a decade to push the idea of a trail and heritage site marking the city’s grim history as the nation’s second-busiest center of the slave trade, said she was happy that Wilder thought Richmond was the best place for a museum.
She said she told Wilder recently that “it’s important for us to work together to make this happen.”
“I’m elated,” McQuinn said, noting that McDonnell had walked the trail, as did Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D). “I have stayed at this for a long time because I just feel there is a long-overdue way of trying to honor the contributions of those of the past, some of whom are named but most of them unnamed, who died, were brutally beaten, in chains, enslaved.”