Slavery Museum, Once a Dream, Plagued by Money Trouble

Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder's hope for a national slavery museum seems distant now.

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(The Root)—In late September, a TV news crew from Richmond, Va.’s WTVR cornered former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder and his attorney, Joe Morrissey, outside a courthouse in Caroline County. The encounter was classic journalist versus dissembling pols—and by “classic” I mean sad and predictable.

A circuit court judge had just ruled against Wilder’s United States National Slavery Museum. He decreed that the museum’s land would be auctioned off because its board hadn’t paid taxes on the plot for years, racking up a $400,000-plus bill.

The NSM is/was an institution that after 20 years of planning and talking exists only as designs on paper (and the Web)—plus an overgrown sculpture garden on the Fredericksburg, Va., site. The project’s history is sad and tortuous. But it had promise. Wilder, the grandson of enslaved people and the first African-American governor, envisioned an institution that might have added (and still may add?) to our understanding of the slave system upon which our nation’s prosperity was built.

This was just the latest in an endless series of failures and self-inflicted wounds for Wilder and his museum, which have become near-fatal in recent years. In 2011, the museum filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The NSM’s attorney then asked a federal court to dismiss the case, saying the board would get its books in order and create its own reorganization plan. Didn’t happen. And yet, in 2007 the NSM reported $17 million in assets to the IRS (along with a long and growing list of creditors).

“This is not the end of this game,” Wilder asserted to WTVR’s Sandra Jones. He told her that he couldn’t pay taxes because the city of Fredericksburg hadn’t told him exactly how much the museum owed. Reporter Jones pushed back. “But you know you owe something, so why not pay it?” Joe Morrissey, counsel for the former governor and the museum as well as a member of the Virginia General Assembly, stepped in and with wagging index finger delivered the same circular talking point.

Much-needed clarity came in almost perfect straight-man deadpan from John Rife, the attorney representing Fredericksburg’s treasurer. “If they don’t know what they’re assessed, somebody’s not opening up the mail.”

The project seemed dead. And then: Ten days shy of the auction date, city treasurer, Jim Haney, announced a 150-day postponement after being handed a contract between the NSM and the real estate partnership that had donated the land. Wilder is like a cat with at least one or two lives left in his mortality bank.

Under the terms of the deal, NSM sells the land back to the real estate developer, which plans to build an amateur baseball complex. The developer also picks up the tax tab. This five-month reprieve was a victory of sorts for the NSM, one Joe Morrissey would not elaborate on to The Root. “There’s nothing I can say,” a very pleased Morrissey said last week.

But there’s a crucial detail neither side is trumpeting: 36 acres will be hacked off the museum’s plot, leaving the former governor with roughly two acres for the museum, according to Bill Freehling and Pamela Gould of the Free Lance-Star. Wilder’s NSM appears to have been pared down to a vestigial stump.

In a sense, the deal puts Wilder at square-minus-one: He must devise a workable plan—and secure ever-elusive funding—after a generation of train wrecks, great and small.