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A towering giant's grand vision
U.S. National Slavery Museum board member and eminent historian shares his vision for the facility


Date published: 9/11/2004

By PAMELA GOULD

DURHAM, N.C.--A vivid image came to John Hope Franklin's mind when then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder approached him in the early 1990s about creating a museum to tell the story of slavery.

It should be built in Jamestown and the museum itself should be a slave ship, he thought almost immediately.

"This would be a dramatic presentation of the way in which slavery began in this country," Franklin recalled during a recent interview on the campus of Duke University, where he is the James B. Duke Professor of History Emeritus.

Franklin, a tall, thin man with an easy smile and a razor-sharp mind, saw the plan as ideal for one simple, practical reason: "You wouldn't have to imagine. That's where it pulled up."

Jamestown is where the first slaves came ashore, where they first tasted life in a land others saw as a beacon of freedom and opportunity.

When Wilder settled on Fredericksburg as his museum site in October 2001, Franklin--now a member of the museum's board of directors--was disappointed but accepting.

"I said, 'Well, it's pretty far up the river, but I hope the museum could be a slave ship,'" he said. "It's not going to be that now, I know. But I still think it was a pretty good idea."

Though Fredericksburg wasn't Franklin's first pick for the museum, the 89-year-old author and scholar does have fond memories of the city that sits on the shores of the Rappahannock River.

It was there that he and his wife Aurelia spent their wedding night--June 11, 1940--in the city's Rappahannock Hotel.

And it was there that Franklin knew of a gas station that would allow him to use the restroom as he journeyed between his home in North Carolina and points north in the days before Civil Rights legislation.

"In the black community, this was known--where you could and could not stop," he recalled.

So, with those memories, Franklin said Fredericksburg "has a special place in my heart." In his mind, it has just one problem as far as being the right home for the U.S. National Slavery Museum that Executive Director Vonita Foster said will open in three years.

"The alternative was attractive in every way but being in Jamestown," he said.

Eminent historian


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