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Smoke in their eyes
The Slavery Museum should keep its tobacco money

Date published: 3/23/2007

SINGLE-ISSUE organizations by definition see the world through a single prism, but the rest of society needn't shout "amen" to every sermon such groups preach. Thus, the U.S. National Slavery Museum rightly rejected the call of an anti-tobacco outfit to return a $200,000 donation made by Philip Morris USA.

In a March 12 letter to Vonita Foster, the museum's executive director, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids President Matthew Myers chastised the museum for "joining forces with a company that continues to target children for another form of slavery, addiction to tobacco. This sends a dangerously mixed message to kids."

Mr. Myers makes a fair point about tobacco's power to addict: Henry Ford called the cigarette "the little white slaver," and some weed junkies can't break the habit even with patches and gum and visits to Professor Mesmer. But however regrettable the existence of cigarettes, the connection of tobacco to slavery is strong and direct. If banking giant J.P. Morgan can establish a $5 million scholarship for black Louisiana kids because one of its ancestral institutions used bayou slaves as collateral, Philip Morris can kick in 200 grand to the museum given that, notes "Alistair Cooke's America," "it was tobacco that set the Southern pattern of a single cash crop, grown on a large plantation. Tobacco called for labor battalions, and for more drudgery than skill. The Virginians needed slavery. Blacks were shipped in legions."

That Philip Morris' name may be on a bronze plaque somewhere listing the museum's corporate angels seems unlikely to pitch youngsters into a tailspin of doublethink regarding real and metaphorical slavery. Young people are not going to march out of the slavery museum--especially after seeing exhibits linking tobacco cultivation with whips and manacles--and into the smoke shop. What galls the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is that the Philip Morris gift gets the corporation a bit of good press, which the campaign believes the devil never deserves.

Make no mistake: Cigarettes are a bane, teen smoking a public-health problem. But a puritanical separation of "ill-gotten gains" from philanthropy would tear paintings from gallery walls, close hospital wings, and revoke the degrees of poor kids, undoing countless good works funded by the fortunes of robber barons and, sometimes, outright rogues.

The U.S. National Slavery Museum has stories to tell. They are too important to be curtailed by a special interest unwilling to see the trees or the forest for the smoke.