Some of the news has dissipated about the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and she thankfully is doing well. We've celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and listened to President Barack Obama's second State of the Union address. Now Virginians would do well — during Black History Month — to at least acknowledge an auspicious anniversary that went unnoticed this year.
The 21st anniversary of the inauguration of America's first elected black governor, L. Douglas Wilder, was Jan. 14. Three days later was Wilder's 80th birthday. This great Virginian and grandson of former slaves, born in the cradle of the Confederacy, was also the first African-American elected to the Virginia Senate and the first African-American elected to statewide office in Virginia as lieutenant governor. As such, he could very well be credited with blazing the way for Obama's victory as the nation's first black president.
It might appear odd to suddenly pause and pay respects to Wilder's governorship, after he completed his tenure as Richmond's mayor just two years ago. This isn't an appeal for a program or day to honor Wilder, per se. Rather, it's an encouragement to simply give honor where honor is due.
Many people read recent newspaper stories that Wilder owes more than $140,000 in taxes on the well-publicized slavery museum that he envisioned on 38 acres along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg. This news caused me to think deeply about his public service and whether that's really a personal debt or a debt belonging to all of us.
Criticism abounded in response to this delinquent tax announcement. And no doubt angst lingers over some of Wilder's controversial actions as mayor. Still, I believe that Virginians should reconsider the vision of this public servant who largely transformed Virginia's legacy in American history.
Wilder served with distinction. Among many achievements during his tenure in the Executive Mansion, the commonwealth was designated among the best fiscally managed states in the nation by Fortune magazine.
He also exercised balance in his politics. Some Democrats complained of his conservatism. But Wilder used his power to continue tearing down the vestiges of racism at home and abroad. In his first year as governor he directed his cabinet to implement his new policy that mandated state agencies and boards to divest themselves of as much as $1 billion invested in companies that did business with then racially segregated South Africa.
Despite the financial hardships of the slave museum project in Fredericksburg, Wilder's vision for it remains very much alive. It's also a vision in sync with Richmond's legacy and culture, and there's now a plan to build a slave history museum in Shockoe Bottom. That legacy and culture always has been the struggle to reconcile and heal from the deep racial wounds of the past.
From the annexation fight that brought the first black City Council in 1977 to the work of Richmond Renaissance of the 1980s to the Wilder administration of the 1990s, not to mention the recent suspension of the showing of the racist movie “Birth of a Nation” at the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, the quest for racial reconciliation in Richmond, the former Capital of the Confederacy, has remained strong.
That said, the temptation to set aside the vision of a slavery museum on the shores of the Rappahannock hints of a setback. It appears to indicate a people who would rather forget or even suppress their history rather than face the lingering facts and heal.
Less we forget, Wilder, indeed a trailblazer, who — through his faith in the Declaration of Independence that declared all men to be created equal — opened the doors for other black legislators and governors across the nation. In doing so he both symbolically and substantively set Virginia on high. It is time to consider the future symbols emanating from Virginia and what they could mean to America and the world.
Granted, the civil rights museum project on the Washington Mall will be big on a national scale. How much bigger could a slave museum dedicated to truth with hopes for healing be in the heart of Virginia? My hope is that the slave museum site, worth $7.6 million, won't be sold for other purposes. My hope is that Virginians from all walks of life, political persuasions and racial backgrounds will pull together behind this visionary as they have many times in the past with an aim to make Virginia even greater. S
Terone B. Green is a former president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters and past board chairman of the Richmond Urban League.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.