National museum on slavery takes shape in Virginia





Deep in the territory of the old Confederacy, a new glass and stone edifice will soon begin rising -- the first national museum in the United States devoted to the subject of black slavery.

Builders will soon start sinking foundations for the 2,700 sq meters United States National Slavery Museum that organisers hope to open to the public in early 2008.

The structure, 37 meters high, will be built on a 15 hectares site on donated land overlooking the Rappahannock River about 80 km south of Washington and close to where several fierce Civil War battles were fought.

The building, illuminated at night, will be clearly visible to drivers on Interstate 95, the main north-south East Coast artery, said former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, himself the grandson of a slave, who is spearheading the project.

Wilder, now the mayor of Richmond, said there was a burning need for such an institution. "We need to ask new questions and provide new information about one of the most misreported and misunderstood institutions in American history," he said.

After slavery was abolished in the 1860s, blacks were reluctant to dwell on their painful history and were absorbed with the continuing fight for economic survival, civil rights and equality in the United States.

Wilder's own father was reluctant to speak about his father's experiences and handed down only a few stories about how his owner would beat him for sneaking off to visit his family on a different plantation. "He really tried to just get past it," Wilder said of his father.

That is now changing as black leaders express a growing desire and need to reexamine the past. Wilder said all Americans needed to understand, for example, the role slavery played in U.S. economic development in the 19th century.

Museum officials said they have already raised around $50 million (28 million pounds) -- around half the amount needed to build the museum. Wilder wants to raise an additional $100 million as an endowment and has called on U.S. corporations that may have profited from slavery to help, "not in the sense of reparations but as an acknowledgement of doing what is right." Several major corporations have pledged to help.

In a recent Washington speech, actor Ben Vereen, who played in the groundbreaking TV mini-series "Roots" in 1977, told corporate leaders they had an obligation to step forward.

"TIME TO TALLY UP"

"We've bought your cars. We've smoked your cigarettes. We've built your industries. Now it's time to tally up," he said.

"This is our Holocaust Museum," Vereen said, evoking a direct comparison with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington that opened in 1993.

The museum design is by architect C.C. Pei, son of renowned architect I.M. Pei. The centrepiece is a massive glass-roofed atrium that will hold the replica of a slave ship, the Dos Amigos, which is being reconstructed from its original plans.

Museum executive director Vonita Foster said there were some 6,000 museums in the United States. Several smaller regional museums of slavery are in the works but this will be the first national museum devoted to the issue.

Apart from the ship, visitors to the slavery museum will undergo a multimedia experience that will allow them, if only for few moments, to feel a little of what it was like to be captured in Africa and become a slave.

"We want to surprise visitors, take away control and not let them know what is coming next," said exhibit designer Lyn Henley. "We will walk them through an experience of being psychologically captured."

She would not say exactly how this would happen but added that parts of the exhibit would be unsuitable for young children.

In another part of the exhibit, visitors would be taken into an "invisible church" where they could eavesdrop on the voices of slaves creeping away into the woods at night to practice their religion and meet their loved ones.

The museum already has a growing collection of artefacts, including slave shackles, furniture and clothing and a large collection of what Henley called "objects of racism" -- paraphernalia of the slave owners. One of the most evocative is a set of shackles designed for an infant.



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tiffany glenn - 3/18/2010

How do I verify this information with credible sources?


Steven R Alvarado - 3/1/2006

Also should be mentioned the role of Native-Americans in the spreading of slavery into the west.


John J Capozucca - 2/28/2006

Slavery is the stain on America's soul and its heinousness can never be defended, however, the whole truth about slavery in America needs to be told at this museum--not just what is politically correct.

American heritage, vol 441, "Selling Poor Steven" states that 3,775 free blacks owned 12,740 black slaves. This story also purports that the first slave owner in Virginia, Anthony Johnson, was a black man. Frighteningly, the story also outlines how free black women "owned" their husbands, free blacks sold their children into slavery, and absent free black slave owners "leased" their slaves to plantation owners.

There's also black historian Carter G. Woodson's "Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1839," which is self-explanatory.

Slavery in the United States was not simply about racism. That's why the statement "...instruments of racism..." in this context is utterly foolish.

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