HOLMBERG: Bring National Slavery Museum to Richmond

Posted at 11:42 PM, Mar 11, 2013

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - Is a U.S. National Slavery Museum that distasteful to us? Or is it the man behind the plan, L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor?

Why has a museum of such import languished while museums dedicated to art, music, cars, airplanes and branches of the military have been built?

It’s hard to believe 20 years have passed since Wilder began the push for a National Slavery Museum.

First it was to be in Jamestown, when big names like Bill Cosby climbed aboard.

Then Fredericksburg, where the grand plan slowly and very publicly spiraled towards collapse. The non-profit declared bankruptcy and the donated 38-acres there was on the verge of being seized by the city. Some donors wanted their artifacts back.

It’s been like the museum itself was in chains.

But thanks to some smart legal work by attorney Paul Goldman – the architect of Wilder’s historic run to the governor’s mansion - and Richmond state Delegate Joe Morrissey, Wilder’s organization and dream may have a faint heartbeat.

But it’s dead in Fredericksburg, it seems to me.

It was the wrong place to start with – a rather chichi  town that had far, far less to do with slavery than the gritty port city of Richmond.

And while the Fredericksburg plan wilted on the vine, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in D.C. was planned, bankrolled and will be finished in 2015 – rendering a slavery museum just south in Fredericksburg moot.

But here in the deeper South lies the texture, the trails, the tears, the truth and the very ground where slavery flourished.

They were shipped here, bought and sold, beaten, jailed, hung and buried here. Perhaps no other U.S. city outside of New Orleans has such a distinct connection to the slave trade.

The groundwork has already been laid for a museum site in Shockoe Valley. The slave trail winds up there. It’s near the auction blocks, old Lumpkins Jail, the gallows site and the old burial ground. There are already historical plots and markers there. Freed slaves would settle nearby.

The state has bought the vast parking lot there above the land where some (not me) believe slaves were buried. The asphalt is gone, waiting for something real to happen there.

So let’s think about it. Who or what entity would make this happen?

I say it’s Virginia Commonwealth University. They have the power, the gravitas. Heck, they’ve bought up and transformed – for the better – about half of center city. They have all the schools to pull if off – engineering, design, art, marketing – and it’s a trusted body for attracting funds and grants.

Yes, it’s a little pipe dreamy, but look at what VCU has been able to accomplish here in just the past decade. And c’mon, this is a university built on a city at least partially built on the slave trade. The university actually began as school of medicine. Many of the cadavers for the early classes of doctors were deceased slaves. (Some believe the “cadavers” may have been seized in dark alleys by a not-so-scrupulous grave-robber.)

Everything leads to this spot.  Richmond should not  hide from its history. It should stand square and do the honorable thing – show what happened here in this old river city – a town that not only has this shameful past but also an associated history – like some of the first black-owned banks, business districts, neighborhoods and subdivisions in the nation.

There’s every reason to build the National Slavery Museum here, and no good reason why we haven’t done it yet.

That’s my take, please leave yours here on