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Wilder to name new slate
National Slavery Museum's proponent announces he'll appoint advisers to help streamline plans for the Fredericksburg institution.

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Date published: 3/21/2002

The driving force behind the planned National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg says he will name an advisory board of scholars and museum experts to help the proposed institution find its focus.

Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said the advisory board will include some of the participants in a symposium Tuesday at Howard University in Washington. The gathering examined issues the slavery museum may address and featured scholars and experts from across the country and overseas.

Wilder said the session was an initial attempt to "prick the thinking" of the nearly 50 people gathered. He said he hopes to break ground at the 38-acre museum site sometime next year.

Participants in the symposium agreed that narrowing the focus will be challenging, and that the museum can't be all-encompassing.

"Let's not burden it with trying to prove or disprove everything," said Steven Newsmen, director of the Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Museum and Center for African-American History and Culture.

The experts said the museum should address issues ranging from enslavement of Africans by Africans to the involvement of European governments closely aligned with church establishments.

"We've been able to shock both blacks and whites," said John Padget of the Kura Hulanda Project, a Curacao museum documenting the slave trade in the Caribbean and the Americas. Padget said about 70 percent of Europe's gross national product during the 1600s was linked to the slave trade.

Ideas for exhibits included using virtual-reality technology to simulate for visitors the slaves' torturous journey to the New World.

Slavery museum officials say the story of blacks' bondage will be told from the perspectives of slaves, slaveholders and others, using historical documents, oral-history recordings and artifacts.

Experts also discussed highlighting genetics and the scientific theory that humankind originated in Africa. "It's an unbroken chain. It's truly a living history," said Georgia Dunston, director of the National Human Genome Center at Howard.

Others suggested illustrating how slave traders sought out Africans with such specific skills as cultivating rice. Sheila Walker, a University of Texas anthropology professor, termed the exportation of slaves a "major brain drain and transfer of technology."

Wilder has said he expects 2 million people will visit the museum each year. The project will be carved from Celebrate Virginia, a tourism and commercial venture planned along the Rappahannock River at Interstate 95.

The Fredericksburg City Council has promised $1 million toward the museum. It is scheduled to take a formal vote Tuesday on allocating the money and setting up a special tax district in Celebrate Virginia to recoup the loan.

Wilder first proposed the museum during a 1993 visit to Africa while he was Virginia governor.