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A Status Report: Slavery Museum Holds Firm


  • Editor's note: L. Douglas Wilder, who originated the idea for a Slavery Museum in Virginia, wrote this article at our request for an update on the status of the project. 



    Iwas fortunate to be able to lead a trade and business mission to the African continent in 1992 and to be accompanied there by educators and business and government officials. In our travels to seven African nations, we learned many things and were royally feted. One of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip was a journey to Goiree Isle, a spot just off the coast of Dakar, the capital city of Senegal. It was there that the slaves who had been captured and sold to traders were brought to be penned prior to embarkation to points across the Atlantic to America, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean.

    As we listened to the official native guide and storyteller relate the travails and the odyssey, every single one of us was gripped with a sense of raw emotional outreach. There was a brief moment of identification with those who were carried to that "room of no return," the last place the slaves would see on African soil before being loaded into ships that would take them forever from their homeland, their families, their language, and their culture. Parents were sold separately from their children, the men separately from their wives. They were confined in the holds of the ships for months, until the voyage's end.

    Many people have visited this spot from around the world. The guest register is illustrative of the status and bearing of these individuals. The written testimonials to their feelings bear witness to what I have just stated. That I could return as Governor to the state to which my slave forebears had been shipped was beyond my wildest contemplation. I had to be there.

    Idea Dates Back to 1993

    The following year, in 1993, the late Dr. Leon Sullivan asked me to deliver the keynote address to the second African/African-American Conference held in Gabon. My eldest daughter Lynn, being fluent in French, accompanied me to aid in translation. It was there that I envisioned and announced the need for the creation of a National Slavery Museum to be built and located in Virginia, for that is where it all started. I felt there was far more to the story of slavery than had been told. I felt further that it should have the cooperation and participation of the nations of the world. I was pleased and heartened by the assurances from the heads of state of such countries as Nigeria, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Zambia, and South Africa.

    This support was further expanded in our discussions here in Virginia, when the Southern Governors Association hosted the heads of state of several African nations. I was pleased that we had 13 governors present and more than 20 African nations represented by their president or other appropriate official.

    We first thought Jamestown would be the most logical and appropriate site, and for several years we endured the legal entanglements between the claimants to the rightful ownership of the property for us to be able to deal with them. Negotiations broke down last year, and we started looking for a site that could meet our needs.

    We established certain criteria to guide us, mindful of the fact that there would be refinements as we progress. We want to tell the story of slavery in America with a permanent exhibition that tells the story in the territories that became the United States of America. Exhibits also will focus on the role of slavery after 1776 in the new nation, the rise of the abolitionist movement, the road to the Civil War, and President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The world of the slave rather than the role of the slaveholder will be the focus of the exhibition, with the high-level politics of the period emphasized to reflect the historical context of the times. We want to have an exhibition for children aged 6 to 8 depicting the life of a slave family living in the antebellum United States. Exhibitions on topics related to the theme of the museum will be shown for approximately six to nine months, and will be crafted so they can travel across the United States and throughout the world.

    A Library Will Be Included

    We also plan to have archives and a library with a capacity of 250,000 books. The Museum Book and Music Shop will be sufficiently large to hold a definitive collection of all of the major work currently in print on the subject of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial period to the end of the Civil War, the period of Reconstruction, and the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans through today.

    The rich collection of the music composed by slaves will be available for purchase, as will the oral slave narratives, hitherto available only in some of the nation's research libraries. We plan an auditorium seating 1,000, two lecture halls seating 100 and 300, and five classrooms seating 50-75 each. We also would like to have a restaurant/cafe.

    We plan a reproduction of a slave ship near the water, and, either through virtual reality or actual location in the water, we want visitors to get the actual feel of what it was like to be so transported.

    Dr. H. Michael Neiditch, adviser and consultant to the museum board, has stated that finding a suitable location for the National Slavery Museum involves two principal considerations: finding a site offering a relative ease of access to those who want to visit the Museum, thus providing for as large an annual attendance as possible, and selecting a site whose physical setting is dignified and worthy of the museum's mission.

    There obviously are other factors that should be considered. I choose to highlight the two principal concerns in order for people to know just what is the driving force in terms of selection. We have considered proposals for location in this context and not solely in monetary terms. There never has been, nor is there, any bidding war. Neiditch has completed his report and as of this writing is making it available to the museum board. I anticipate that a final site selection in Virginia will be made by the board as soon thereafter as possible.

    H. Patrick Swygert, president of Howard University, will sponsor through the university a collaborative forum in the nation's capital of museum heads, curators, historians, and experts on the subject from around the nation. We can then be more aware of what goes into the museum and the problems that have been experienced by others, and draw from that wellspring of talent so assembled.

    Designed to Reflect Diversity

    This nation recently has undergone one of its greatest moments of tragedy. Much remains to be done to ferret out those responsible for this barbarity. But we are a nation of strength and diversity. It is to these ends that those of us associated with this project hope to provide, through education and a true exposure to the history of our nation, those who come to visit the museum with knowledge of who "WE, the people" were and who "WE, the people" are. It is not intended to inflame the passions of discord or sow the seeds of guilt. It is hoped that it will be more reflective of the fact that America never has been of one race, one language, one religion, or one anything. It is further intended that we can learn how we have dealt with this stain on the fabric of our nation's coming together.

    One cannot begin to discuss slavery and its origins without pointing out the role that Africans and Arabs played. Nor is it possible without discussing the role that former slaves played in enslaving one another. One of Virginia's noted and famous historians, Dr. Edgar A. Toppin, points out in his book, A Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528, that Anthony Johnson filed suit in Northampton County Court in 1654 seeking the return of his slave. The court ruled in his favor and ordered the defendants to pay all expenses of the suit: "This historic decision was the first civil case in which a Virginia court made a black indentured servant a slave. Casor was returned on the terms on which Johnson brought suit, that Casor was his servant for life.

    "The strangest thing about this case was that plaintiff Anthony Johnson, the master, was himself a black man. Defendants Goldsmith and the Parkers were white, but Robert Parker lost the case."

    It also will be interesting to note that Germans in Pennsylvania made up the first, and probably the most vehement, group opposing slavery.

    These are but a few of the things that will be discovered at the museum.

    There is something else that will unfold as we follow our country's cause in defense of its creed and purpose: the willingness on the part of those who had not yet benefitted from that high calling, nor shared in the bounty of the rich prodigality that Nature bestowed, to join in defense of this nation at every time its future existence was threatened. That has not, nor will it ever, change.

    L. Douglas Wilder is a former Governor of Virginia.

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