- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) - Near battlefields where soldiers fought to preserve slavery, a solemn stone figure stands, arms out-stretched, face turned skyward as if rejoicing over the broken shackles etched into its thick arms.

The sculpture anchors the Spirit of Freedom Exhibit Garden, a gathering of artwork that’s the first, and so far the only, sign of a $200 million national slavery museum long anticipated in a region heavy with Civil War history.

It was 1993 when L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first black elected governor and the grandson of slaves, proposed a museum that would tell their story.

Years later, the museum’s future has become clouded by shifting opening dates and stalled fundraising.

Despite millions of dollars in private and public dollars committed to the museum, organizers have given an unclear accounting of their finances: Though the museum cites $50 million available, a 2006 tax return obtained by Associated Press details $17.6 million in assets, much of that believed to be the value of a 38-acre proposed site.

Nearly five years after a ceremonial groundbreaking, the opening has drifted to 2008 and beyond. Neither the developer, Silver Cos., nor architect C.C. Pei, contacted by AP, could say when the museum would open. Mr. Pei said of a 2008 date, “We’d have to get started right now.”

Asked to clarify the museum’s future, Mr. Wilder said he was “finished explaining anything.”

“We comply with every reporting schedule we have to comply with,” said Mr. Wilder, 77, now mayor of Richmond. “If you want to help raise some money, then help. Other than that, quit worrying us.”

The project, conceived by Mr. Wilder during a trip to Africa, was considered for several Virginia regions before organizers chose a Fredericksburg plot donated by developers in 2001. When complete, the center will feature a full-scale replica slave ship and artifacts — from manacles to slave logs — detailing one of America’s most horrific chapters within more than 100,000 square feet of exhibit space.

A $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is planned to open in 2015 in the District.

For now, though, grass marks the site of the Fredericksburg museum along the Rappahannock River.

Organizers blame fundraising, which they say has slowed amid a struggling economy.

Mr. Wilder has tapped powerful friends to help out. In June 2006, entertainers Bill Cosby and Ben Vereen hosted a fundraiser in the District, and that September, Mr. Cosby called on Americans to donate $8 each, a number symbolizing slave shackles. Museum Director Vonita Foster said the efforts raised about $50,000 and less than $1 million, respectively.

Mr. Cosby declined an AP request for an interview.

Ms. Foster said donations arrive at her office daily, slightly less than $20,000 in gifts each month.

“People do want us to begin construction, and I want us to begin construction. Nobody wants it as much as I do,” Miss Foster said. “It’s a viable project. It will happen. We will build in 2008.”

Despite her optimism, Miss Foster acknowledges funding fits and starts.

“The money was just flowing in at one point,” she said. However, it stopped after Hurricane Katrina as people focused on hurricane relief efforts. At the same time, Miss Foster said, museum officials had to pay an army of consultants and exhibit designers.

“We have blueprints; we have drawings; we have exhibit designs,” she said.

Tax records for the museum show expenses outpacing income.

A 2006 return showed functional expenses totaling $550,171; Miss Foster makes $85,000. The museum received $383,582 in direct public support during the same period. The document shows the museum raised $2.6 million in contributions from 2002 to 2005.

“As far as I know, we still have the pledges and the cash in kind around $50 million,” Miss Foster said.

She said Mr. Wilder, who heads the museum’s board, recently told her that construction of a visitors center could move forward.

“That’s the first time he’s ever said we’re going to build in 2008,” she said.

Miss Foster deferred to Mr. Wilder when asked how much of the $10.8 million price tag museum officials had available. Days later, Mr. Wilder directed questions back to Miss Foster.

“I really don’t have access to the books,” Mr. Wilder said.

Lately, Fredericksburg officials speak tentatively about the project.

“I hope it does happen. I guess I have to leave it at that,” said Mayor-at-large Thomas Tomzak.

Local tourism officials say they have stopped promoting the museum. Meanwhile, a request to put a City Council member on the museum’s board for accountability has stalled, according to council member Matthew Kelly.

“As far as I’m aware,” he said, “they’re still thinking about it.”

Setbacks aren’t uncommon among new museum projects, explained Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. Mr. Bell cited the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall, established in 1989.

“The building wasn’t completed until 2004,” Mr. Bell said. “So it can take a long time sometimes to get your story together, and you’ve got to do a lot of pavement pounding and convincing people.”

Miss Foster said officials have resisted pressures to begin building until they know they can afford completion, a smart move, Mr. Bell said.

“Just building something with the money they’ve got, that isn’t necessarily a good plan; it may backfire,” he said. “You may end up building something that can’t be completed.”

Mr. Bell warned that the project could be in trouble if organizers lose community support.

The only problem Miss Foster sees is a troubled economy.

She said the museum is stuck trying to raise money amid shifting priorities in America — “People are losing their homes” — and bad media coverage.

Mr. Wilder sees a different obstacle.

“It can open when people who you encourage to contribute do so. When the naysayers quit bothering us and when people really want to learn more about their history [and] show that they do,” he said.

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