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Slavery museum garden blooms
Slavery museum garden opens

 The sculpture 'Hallelujah' by artist Ken Smith was unveiled during the opening of the Spirit of Freedom garden.
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Date published: 6/22/2007


For Joanne Cooper, last night's opening of the Spirit of Freedom garden on the grounds of the U.S. National Slavery Museum was easily summed up.

"Awesome," she said after viewing the exhibit's sculptures and storyboards. "Absolutely awesome."

About 100 people gathered at the museum's Celebrate Virginia property to laud the opening of its first on-site exhibit, a garden dedicated to slaves, abolitionists and others who fought for freedom.

The $100 million museum is still a long way off. Executive Director Vonita Foster said she's hoping for a "soft opening" next year and an official opening in 2009 or 2010.

"The contractors are ready. The plans are ready. The permits are ready," she said. "Everything's ready except the money."

Museum officials have reported receiving $50 million in cash and pledges since 2001, though their most recent tax forms show that only $3.1 million in cash has been collected.

The tax forms--and the museum's own estimate--do not include money collected during last summer's gala at the Warner Theatre, featuring entertainers Bill Cosby and Ben Vereen, or from Cosby's recent campaign urging all Americans to donate $8 to the museum.

"We'll get it done. The question is will it be soon enough for some of us," former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the museum's founder and mayor of Richmond, told the crowd. "Right now, I want it done yesterday."

Last night's event included the unveiling of "Hallelujah," an 8-foot-tall, 4,700-pound sculpture of a male slave breaking free of bonds. Staunton resident Ken Smith crafted the garden's centerpiece from Virginia stone.

The garden also showcases wood carvings from Ghana and 13 tall, wooden panels featuring silhouettes painted by Fredericksburg artist Johnny Johnson.

The pieces from Ghana, once home to many of those enslaved, impressed Richmond architect Lawrence Williams, who also enjoyed the garden's peaceful, tree-lined setting.

"They're the roots of trees," he said of the sculptures. "That's the symbolism. Like the roots of our ancestors. They've got a lot of energy."

Storyboards tell of endurance and bravery.

Like the one about Henry "Box" Brown, a slave in Richmond who literally mailed himself to freedom. He climbed into a 15-square-foot box--visitors can fold themselves into a replica of it at the garden--and spent the next 28 hours being handled as cargo until the box was opened at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.

Or the one about Harriet Jacobs, a North Carolina slave who escaped by hiding for seven years in the crawl space of an attic alongside rats and mice. A copy of the crawl space is there for anyone who would like to get a sense of how that felt.

Museum officials replaced two giraffe statues that were stolen last month. Officials are also planning to beef up security at the garden, where vandals scraped up two of the story panels this week.

The Rev. Ronald Cooper of Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site) said he was thrilled with the garden.

"Just what I've seen so far is great. A bit of history was set today," he said. "I'm just looking forward to the future."

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428
Email: egross@freelancestar.com

The garden on the site of the future U.S. National Slavery Museum is open to the public daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

To visit the garden, take Fall Hill Avenue west of U.S. 1 to the entrance of Celebrate Virginia. Turn right at that traffic light, and then left at the next signal. Follow that road all the way to the end.

MORE INFORMATION: Museum: usnsm.org Fundraising: eightbucks.org