Getting Wilder

A former governor makes an unwelcome entrance in the Shockoe Bottom debate.

Former Gov. Doug Wilder flashed his trademark smile.

A reporter had asked why anyone should take seriously his latest announcement about his National Slavery Museum, given the project’s high-profile failure in Fredericksburg.

“They might not,” Wilder said.

So far, few people seem especially interested in what Wilder’s pitching — the mayor’s office, City Council, anti-ballpark activists.

“Everyone is ignoring this and hoping it will go away,” a source at City Hall says.

Wilder wants to put the museum in the former First African Baptist Church, he says, a historic structure that Virginia Commonwealth University owns at 14th and Broad streets. It’s blocks away from Mayor Dwight Jones’ proposed redevelopment of Shockoe Bottom, which, in addition to a controversial stadium, includes a slavery heritage site and museum.

Wilder made his announcement Thursday in a briefing room at the State Capitol, where he served in the Virginia Senate and later as the country’s first elected black governor. His news conference happened amid the chaos surrounding Jones’ stadium proposal — the recently revealed counterproposal by a group of developers, City Council’s slashing of funding for the mayor’s plan, and the late detailed financial information promised by the administration.

Wilder, not one to collaborate with Jones, appears intent on adding to the confusion. He made it clear he plans to fight the mayor for the $5 million set aside in the state budget for a slavery museum. The Jones administration intends to use the money to construct the slavery heritage site that the city’s Slave Trail Commission has planned for years.

The mayor’s office has little to say officially about Wilder’s proposal, writing in a curt statement that it sounds like something he needs to discuss with the state. Delegate Delores McQuinn, who is chairwoman of the Slave Trail Commission, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

City Council President Charles Samuels, who voted against moving forward with the mayor’s ballpark plan, hesitates when he learns of Wilder’s announcement. “It’s certainly going to make things more complicated,” he says.

Indeed, about an hour after Wilder announced his plan, VCU issued a statement saying it hadn’t signed off, and that Wilder — who serves as distinguished professor at the university’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs — had only mentioned the idea during a casual lunch with President Michael Rao last week.

Because Wilder proposes to memorialize the city’s history as a center of the slave trade without tying it to the fate of a controversial ballpark proposal — as Jones has done — you might expect the anti-stadium activists to be at least a little positive.

Instead, they’re the most vocal in their distaste.

They refer to Wilder’s decision to take the planned museum to Fredericksburg, where not much materialized. Eventually, Wilder’s foundation went bankrupt and controversy emerged over the fate of donated artifacts.

Ballpark opponent Phil Wilayto considers it poor timing, considering the level of debate the Richmond ballpark plan has reached.

“The funding is up in the air. Various factions are at each other’s throats. This is a very appropriate time for Doug Wilder to interject himself back into the situation,” Wilayto says sarcastically — “it sounds like a repeat of Fredericksburg.”

Ana Edwards, chairwoman of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, says any museum or heritage site needs to be developed through a collaborative, community process — not a top-down proclamation by a former governor, regardless of his contribution to black history in America.

“You worry it would be much more about his legacy and his face than it would be about the history of slavery and honoring our ancestors,” Edwards says. “You can’t come back. You have a building named after you. You have a library. Shoo.”


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