When the U.S. National Slavery Museum failed to materialize in Fredericksburg, Ken Smith’s wayward children were caught in the weeds—literally.
Smith sculpted the “Hallelujah” statue that was placed in the garden in 2007 and was commissioned by the museum for another piece, a 9,000-pound disc depicting the middle passage.
“There’s a lot of emotional energy in these pieces,” Smith said. “It’s not an overstatement that I consider them my children.”
When the project fell apart, his first statue sat there, barely visible with arms raised just above the grass that grew around it. He had to take the other sculpture, “Middle Passage,” with him when he relocated to New Mexico.
In two weeks, both sculptures will get a new home at Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La.
The statue’s recent saga began when the U.S. National Slavery Museum filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011.
The museum, led by former Gov. Doug Wilder, had money problems for years and owed more than $215,000 in back taxes to the city of Fredericksburg.
The museum could not find a buyer for the land at 6500 Gordon W. Shelton Blvd. until New Jersey company Diamond Nation proposed building a baseball stadium on the site.
Last month, Diamond Nation paid $400,000 for the 38 acres of undeveloped land.
The taxable value of the property is about $7.6 million and the sale appears to be part of a settlement agreement between Diamond Nation and slavery museum officials. In December 2014, the museum filed a lawsuit alleging that Diamond Nation had breached its contract to buy the land for $2.75 million.
City Council member Kerry Devine, who also serves on the arts commission, contacted Diamond Nation after the land sale to ensure the statue would be preserved.
Diamond Nation had no need for the sculpture and deeded it back to Smith.
“While I’m sad to see it leave Fredericksburg, it never got the attention it deserved here,” Devine said. “It’s a wonderful piece of art and not many people got to see it. It would be nice to see some celebration of it as it’s off to its new home.”
This isn’t the first time the “Hallelujah” statue has been tossed aside. It was originally commissioned in 2002. The buyer then changed his mind and Smith installed it in Staunton, where it was vandalized. When he donated it to the U.S. National Slavery museum, he said, “I was more than happy. It became the centerpiece for the freedom garden. I thought that was the end of the story.”
At Whitney Plantation, the statues will be part of a three-piece exhibit showing the progress of slavery in America. “Middle Passage” is the beginning, while a piece depicting slaves working at Whitney Plantation will be the second. “Hallelujah” will represent emancipation.
The Whitney Plantation museum attempts to tell the full story of slavery. Owner John Cummings, a lawyer and real estate investor, bought the plantation in 1999 and has spent the better part of 15 years working to tell that story.
Cummings said the newly acquired artwork gives “attention to how almost whirlwind-like America was sucked into slavery, and how slaves were sucked into America.”
“It is important that we honor the people who built the wealth of our nation and honor them as human beings, with emotions,” he said.
Cummings said students are not given the real facts of slavery in history classes and he hopes his museum can fill in those raw details of slavery that have been withheld.
“Slavery is everyone’s history in America and we have to face it,” he said. “Education has to be the most important thing. We can’t rewrite history but we can create solutions.”