By George E. Curry
Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder’s plan to build a United States National Slavery Museum not far from the nation’s capital is almost eight years behind schedule and his group is mired in so much debt that it recently filed for bankruptcy.
A story in Sunday’s Washington Post catalogued an array of problems by the group, raising doubt about whether the museum will ever be built.
“The U.S. Slavery Museum filed for bankruptcy this fall,” the story stated. “Firms have filed claims totaling more than $7 million. The city of Fredericksburg has threatened to sell the land because of more than $200,000 in unpaid real-estate taxes. Officials have asked the court to either liquidate the organization or appoint a trustee to oversee its finances.”
No one expected to receive this kind of news in the middle of Black History Month.
Wilder, who became the nation’s first elected African-American governor in 1990, unveiled plans in 1993 for a $100 million museum that would sit on 38 acres of land 49 miles south of Washington, D.C. Wilder, who continues to serve as chairman of the board of the museum, announced the appointment of a half-dozen high-profile board members, including Bill Cosby, historian John Hope Franklin, and the presidents of Howard and Hampton universities.
In a statement, Wilder said: “In response to the current economic conditions, we decided it was in the best interest of the museum to take a pause in collecting money. Once things have sufficiently recovered to the point that we can resume full-fledged fundraising efforts, we, indeed, will. Until that time we are in standby mode.”
The problem with Wilder’s statement is that the “current economic conditions” have not existed for the past two decades. And the museum is not in standby mode – it’s in neutral or reverse.
According to various accounts, Wilder, who served as mayor of Richmond from 2005-2009, has been inaccessible.
The story in the Washington Post reads: “‘Governor Wilder disappeared,’ said Rev. Lawrence Davies, the former longtime mayor of Fredericksburg who was a member of the board. Davies stopped getting notices about board meetings, and when he tried to reach Wilder, he never heard back. ‘No one could get through to him,’ Davies said. ‘We didn’t know what to think.’”
Slavery was an international tragedy that should never be forgotten.
Although most Africans ended up in what is now the United States, many elected officials have been unwilling to recognize the horror – and lingering effects – of slavery.
Yet Liverpool, England has operated an impressive International Slavery Museum since 2007.
“The transatlantic slave trade was the largest forced migration in history,” Museum Director David Fleming says on its website. “And yet the story of the mass enslavement of Africans by Europeans is one of resilience and surviving against the odds, and is a testament to the unquenchable nature of the human spirit.”
The museum opened on August 22, which is recognized by the United Nations as International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.
The UN provides the following background on the international observation:
“In late August, 1791, an uprising began in Santo Domingo (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) that would have a major effect on abolishing the transatlantic slave trade. The slave rebellion in the area weakened the Caribbean colonial system, sparking an uprising that led to abolishing slavery and giving the island its independence. It marked the beginning of the destruction of the slavery system, the slave trade and colonialism.”
It continued, “International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition was first celebrated in many countries, in particular in Haiti, on August 23, 1998, and in Senegal on August 23, 1999. Each year the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reminds the international community about the importance of commemorating this day. This date also pays tribute to those who worked hard to abolish slave trade and slavery throughout the world. This commitment and the actions used to fight against the system of slavery had an impact on the human rights movement.”
The slavery remembrance day is not widely observed in the United States.
When plans for the U.S. National Slavery Museum were first announced, it was hoped that it would be on par with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. that “inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.”
Today, however, Doug Wilder’s promise of a national slavery museum is as empty as the 38 acres it was supposed to sit on.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his website, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.