Creative commons

(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.

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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.

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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. 

“I wonder about why it didn’t work,” said University of North Carolina historian Heather Andrea Williams, author of Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, without rendering a judgment on the stewardship of the NSM. “Is it about some larger forces in the society, or is it some internal problem? I know that Bill Cosby was on board at some point. But why didn’t the word get out? I work in the field. I just never really heard about it.”

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As lamentable—and inscrutable—as it seems, the NSM debacle offers us an opportunity to look at what truly matters: how the “peculiar” institution of slavery—as well as its precursors and its aftermath—is understood, taught and remembered. One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, this huge chunk of the American past, from the arrival of the first free Africans on the continent in the early 1500s through the civil rights movement, is still perceived and represented as an aberration in the God-blessed American march toward preordained perfection.

Williams’ Help Me to Find My People is one of a body of correctives to dominant history. In it, she unearths stories of formerly enslaved people who go to tremendous  lengths to find family members sold off by slaveholders.

“I think that the history of slavery has a lot to tell us about everything that’s happened since, says Williams. “I’m not one of those people who says you can look at what’s happening in 2013 … and trace that directly back to slavery,” she adds. “A lot of years have come in between. But what’s important to me is that the racism that grew up alongside slavery, and that grew up to help justify the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, did not go away when slavery ended. And that gets reproduced over time and in different situations.”

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Williams sees the value of any institution that tells this history, including a slavery museum. “I would hope that a slavery museum would talk about these processes, these intellectual, legislative processes that took place to say these people are less than these other people.”

Historian Adriane Lentz-Smith reminds us that we shouldn’t be waiting on Doug Wilder or any smooth savior type to preserve our history and transform the versions that push us to the margins, and then grudgingly celebrate us in February. “Honestly, I think African Americans have some responsibility to not be ignorant and to honor their history by safeguarding its relics,” Lentz-Smith, a professor at Duke, told The Root. “But white Americans and the federal government need to keep in mind that memorials, museums, all these things, they aren't presents to bestow on black people. They're Americans’ attempts to come to terms with what America has been and is, in part because honesty is a good in and of itself, and in part because it helps build a present that isn't still carrying the rot of the past."

Brian Palmer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently teaching at the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications at Hampton University.