US Slavery: $200M Museum


FREDERICKSBURG, Virginia, May 30 - As the US government promotes freedom abroad, a group of prominent African Americans, including entertainer Bill Cosby, is readying a US National Slavery Museum here, to rise as a monumental-scale tribute to a history of pain and perseverance.
I am hoping it will bring to the American consciousness all of the brutality and inhumanity, and that much of the civilization of this country was built on slave labor. I don't think people understand that; I don't think they want to,'' board member and historian John Hope Franklin, 90, said in North Carolina. It’s my hope that it’ll have a profound impact on the American public. Sometimes they think abstractly about slavery, and not about what an impact it has had on our society,’’ said Franklin, now the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University.
Preparations are under way for a three-story, 250,000-square foot (23,225-square-meter) facility designed by Chien Chung Pei of Pei Partnership Architects of New York, high on a bluff over a quarry and the picturesque Rappahannock River, with sweeping views of land once worked by slaves. The cost is a projected 200 million dollars.
Envisioned as a boxy, forward-looking modern building complex, it is to include a towering glass atrium with a full-sized replica of a slave ship.
Ten permanent exhibits will chronicle the brutal and dehumanizing social, political and economic elements of American slavery from the 17th century through the 19th century. We also cover the legacy of slavery after its official ending in 1865,'' said museum director Vonita Foster. Museum founder and former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder first got the idea for a US slavery museum on a 1993 trip to Africa. Wilder, a grandson of slaves, was the first elected black governor in US history and is now mayor of the state capital of Richmond. It has been all these years in the works. Franklin originally envisioned the museum itself in the form of a slave ship before the new design was embraced. With a focus on a slave ship, Franklin said, I thought that one couldn’t avoid feeling the situation,’’ as visitors do at the former slave trade post at Goree, Senegal.
I thought the same feeling could be dramatized on this side of the Atlantic,'' he said. The museum, to be located next to entertainment and hotel facilities, also was to include lecture halls, a commemorative wall and walkway, archives, a library with a capacity of 250,000 books, virtual reality exhibits and a theater. Preparations have begun on the site, due to open in February 2007. The museum's website has been launched, and it has begun loaning out a small collection of artifacts to generate interest. Unlike another museum planned for about 2011 in Washington, with a sweeping scope of African-American history and culture, the Virginia museum's focus is to be US slavery and the broader US context. It does not plan to deal with slavery today, or in other countries' histories. The slavery museum will aim to confront realities on which many Americans have not reflected: that, for example, in a country in which freedom always has been among the most cherished rights, the first five US presidents were all slaveholders. While the US Constitution outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, US slaves were not granted their freedom by the Constitution until 1865. And in the 1830 US Census, there were 3,775 freed blacks who owned 12,740 slaves, the museum says. Promoters note that the southeastern state of Virginia, once a British colony, was the birthplace of the American Revolution and the largest slaveholding state. Virginia slaves also grew most of the tobacco that helped pay for American independence, they say. I felt there was far more to the story of slavery than had been told,’’ Wilder said in a statement.
For those who might think echoes of US slavery are lost in the past, earlier this month, minutes from the site of the new museum, on a corner in the colonial-era center of Fredericksburg, a weathered cube of sandstone believed to have been a pre-Civil War auction block for slaves was smashed, apparently with a hammer, in the dark of night. Authorities are investigating.
An emotional symbol on local African-American history tours, the auction block is shattered but still standing, even as the US National Slavery Museum rises.