A Slavery Museum Negotiates the Treacherous Route to Funding

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MAYOR L. DOUGLAS WILDER used to beg his reluctant father, born in 1886, to tell him stories about how his parents fared during slavery.

After some urging, “my father used to talk about how his father and mother were separated,” Mr. Wilder said. According to the family’s oral history, Mr. Wilder’s grandfather walked 18 miles each way every weekend to see his wife and children in Ashland, Va. Because he never got a travel pass, the white overseer at his Richmond plantation threatened to whip him as punishment.

Mr. Wilder said that his grandfather told the overseer: “You know — this is foolish. I’m not going anywhere.” Sympathetic, the overseer suggested a solution that would satisfy the slave master, “I’ll whip this saddle, and you have to try and act like I’m beating you.”

Tales like this will be preserved by the United States National Slavery Museum, which, Mr. Wilder said, will explore how slavery served for centuries as the country’s economic engine, benefiting both the North and the South.

“The story we’ll tell is how slavery was a business,” he said.

That is, if the cash-strapped project becomes a reality.

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