John Hope Franklin: His Vision for the New Slavery Museum

Historians in the News

Pamela Gould, at Fredericksburg.com (Sept. 11, 2004):

A vivid image came to John Hope Franklin's mind when then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder approached him in the early 1990s about creating a museum to tell the story of slavery.

It should be built in Jamestown and the museum itself should be a slave ship, he thought almost immediately.

"This would be a dramatic presentation of the way in which slavery began in this country," Franklin recalled during a recent interview on the campus of Duke University, where he is the James B. Duke Professor of History Emeritus.

Franklin, a tall, thin man with an easy smile and a razor-sharp mind, saw the plan as ideal for one simple, practical reason: "You wouldn't have to imagine. That's where it pulled up."

Jamestown is where the first slaves came ashore, where they first tasted life in a land others saw as a beacon of freedom and opportunity.

When Wilder settled on Fredericksburg as his museum site in October 2001, Franklin--now a member of the museum's board of directors--was disappointed but accepting.

"I said, 'Well, it's pretty far up the river, but I hope the museum could be a slave ship,'" he said. "It's not going to be that now, I know. But I still think it was a pretty good idea."

Though Fredericksburg wasn't Franklin's first pick for the museum, the 89-year-old author and scholar does have fond memories of the city that sits on the shores of the Rappahannock River.

It was there that he and his wife Aurelia spent their wedding night--June 11, 1940--in the city's Rappahannock Hotel.

And it was there that Franklin knew of a gas station that would allow him to use the restroom as he journeyed between his home in North Carolina and points north in the days before Civil Rights legislation.

"In the black community, this was known--where you could and could not stop," he recalled.

So, with those memories, Franklin said Fredericksburg "has a special place in my heart." In his mind, it has just one problem as far as being the right home for the U.S. National Slavery Museum that Executive Director Vonita Foster said will open in three years.

"The alternative was attractive in every way but being in Jamestown," he said....

Franklin's vision for a slavery museum is a facility that keeps its focus squarely on American slavery in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

To tell that story, the author of the seminal text on African-American history said a handful of subjects needs to be addressed. The first would be the slave trade and the expansion of slavery through the Colonies.

He would also show how American society was transformed as a result of slave labor. And he would teach visitors about the nation's internal strife over the extension and expansion of slavery.

Finally, he would address the end of slavery, brought about by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified on Dec. 6, 1865.

Unlike Jacob Dekker, another of the museum's seven board members, Franklin has no interest in addressing present-day slavery. He also has no interest in expanding the museum's focus to address other experiences of African-Americans.

Franklin believes a dramatic and factual telling of the story of American slavery will provide the prism through which visitors can understand other race-related issues.

"I think, if we do this right it will illuminate all these later struggles," he said.

Franklin has no doubt this nation needs a museum devoted to the institution of slavery and no doubt Virginia is where it should be built.

"It's long, long, long overdue," he said.

Franklin's focus isn't on fund raising. It isn't on the nuts and bolts of how to get a museum built and operating. His expertise is history and his intent is that the story told will be authentic, authoritative and on target.

When asked his biggest concern, Franklin's reply was immediate.

"We spread ourselves out too thin--and therefore become competitors with all the other museums," he said. "I want us to have a special mission."

Successfully telling the story of slavery is a mission that requires educating the public effectively and dramatically, Franklin said.

That is why he keeps coming back to the image of a ship.

He sees that as the literal and symbolic vehicle for the story because that is how the slaves arrived--first to Virginia and later to ports in cities such as Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans.

Architect Chien Chung Pei designed the three-story structure with a full-size replica slave ship as its centerpiece, but Franklin isn't certain that will be as powerful as his vision.

"I want to give some notion of what it meant to be wrenched away from your home and packed in like sardines and be dragged to an unknown world," he said.

"We talk about the ships from Europe coming in, and people coming in to the promised land. This was different."

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