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What's up with the National Slavery Museum?

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Date published: 9/1/2004

By lty White

What's so far visible of National Slavery Museum suggests a misdirection

FEW WOULD DISPUTE former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder's contention that the story of slavery in America needs telling. Looking back, it's hard to fathom how a country founded on freedom, equality, and the "inalienable rights" of individuals could allow human bondage. That, in this country, slavery was racial in nature, that we are still suffering its fallout, and that remnants of the institution brand our collective subconscious all add a deep emotional dimension to the issue. The question is not whether, but where, what, how, and by whom the story should be told.

A gift of land from the Silver Cos. prompted Mr. Wilder to select Fredericksburg as the "where" of his U.S. National Slavery Museum. The city has coughed up a $1 million loan to get things rolling. But why this seminal subject shouldn't be showcased on the National Mall in Washington--alongside the National Museum of American History, the Holocaust Museum, and the Museum of the American Indian--instead of 50 miles south hard by a shopping center has yet to be articulated. The Civil War was mostly about slavery. If the museum aims to tie into the war's battlefields that saturate this area--a nexus simple to see--Mr. Wilder & Associates should sound that theme.

The "what" question also stumps. In a 2002 article in Virginia Business, Mr. Wilder stated that he wants the museum to focus on "the world of the slave rather than the role of the slave holder." The history of slavery here and abroad, including modern-day slavery in the Sudan, he went on, would be plumbed. Yet the preview of museum exhibits at the University of Mary Washington's Ridderhof Martin Gallery focuses more on post-Emancipation racism than slavery. The displays include a 1900 sheet-music cover featuring black minstrels, a book called "Coon Jokes" from 1920, an illustration of the KKK in 1871 North Carolina, and a couple of incongruous "late 20th Century" ceremonial garments from Africa.

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