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Pulse weak on Wilder plan
Signs of life hard to find for slavery museum former governor envisioned for Fredericksburg

 Weeds and fallen leaves cover the Spirit of Freedom Garden, where the slavery museum is proposed in Fredericksburg.
suzanne carr rossi/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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Date published: 12/5/2009

By PAMELA GOULD

By EMILY BATTLE AND PAMELA GOULD

At what point is it time for an obituary?

Signs of life are hard to detect for the U.S. National Slavery Museum former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder conceived while in office more than a decade ago and that he said earlier this year would be revived and still take residence in Fredericksburg's Celebrate Virginia. Efforts to contact Wilder this week were unsuccessful.

The Free Lance-Star checked the museum's vital signs this week and found--at most--a thready pulse.

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972
Email: pgould@freelancestar.com


The U.S. National Slavery Museum's name has been removed from the door of its former offices at the Central Park executive office suites.

The office of former Executive Director Vonita W. Foster is vacant.

The staff, which never exceeded four people, is gone.

The only contact now is Wilder's assistant, who oversees his office at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Fredericksburg officials have not heard a sound from the museum since Wilder's failed bid to make the museum exempt from property taxes in 2008.

The museum's approval to build a structure taller than normal has expired.

The museum's telephone line was disconnected earlier this year.

The museum's Web sites--usnsm.org and usnationalslav erymuseum.org--are defunct.

As recently as last spring, the site continued encouraging visitors to make donations. And for several months, usnational slaverymuseum.org contained no content, but last month someone posted a Wordpress blog on the Web domain that contains nothing but the word "museum."

Usnsm.org, now registered to a California woman, displays a random array of content, on everything from slavery and the Civil War to Japanese animation. Its home page includes text referring to a 2006 groundbreaking for the museum.

This week, the Virginia Welcome Center on Interstate 95 in Fredericksburg handed out its last slavery museum brochure.

As an employee noted, it's not actually a brochure --because the museum doesn't exist--but a document for soliciting money.

But soliciting money is something the museum is not legally authorized to do in Virginia.

The museum allowed its registration with the state's Office of Consumer Affairs--required of all charities that solicit money--to lapse in the summer of 2008.

After two newspapers reported in March that the museum could not legally solicit funds, Wilder--or someone on his behalf--told the Office of Consumer Affairs that the group would file the documents to renew its registration.

This week, a Consumer Affairs spokeswoman said the museum filed information in March, but didn't include an up-to-date federal tax return. The state's request for more information was never answered, and the spokeswoman said her office would send another letter this week.

The museum is behind in paying its city real estate taxes and apparently hasn't filed its federal tax return as required by law.

The museum owes the city of Fredericksburg $79,718.02 in taxes on the 38 acres it received from the Silver Cos. in the Celebrate Virginia tourism campus.

That figure includes the penalty and interest for payments that remain unpaid from November 2008, May 2009 and November 2009, according to the city treasurer's office.

State law gives the city the power to put the land up for sale after the end of a year in which real estate taxes have been past due for two years or more. In this case, if the museum does not pay what it owes now, the city treasurer would be able to initiate the sale process in January 2011.

The museum's 2008 federal tax return was due by Nov. 15. Wilder's office did not produce a copy of the return this week.

Federal guidelines require non-profits with assets greater than $2.5 million to file annually. The museum's land is valued at more than $17 million.

A garden with an 8-foot-tall sculpture of a slave looking skyward as he breaks free from his shackles is the only thing that has risen from the museum site since the Silver Cos. donated the land seven years ago.

Today, the garden lies untended, with weeds cropping up, ornamental grasses obscuring a bench and at least one figure representing the slaves' native land having disappeared.