February 28, 2006

Slavery museum takes shape in Virginia

By Alan Elsner

FREDERICKSBURG, Va (Reuters) - 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
29,000-square foot United States National Slavery Museum that
organizers hope to open to the public in early 2008.

The structure, 120-feet high, will be built on a 38-acre
site on donated land overlooking the Rappahannock River about
50 miles 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 -- 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 acknowledgment 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.


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

"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 centerpiece 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

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 artifacts,
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.