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Smoke damage
Can Mr. Wilder save his museum?

Date published: 3/7/2010

DOUG WILDER'S public life is both incredible and, especially of late, in-credible. The (unhyphenated) incredible dimension describes a man, the grandson of slaves, who by charm, intelligence, and dogged determination became the first elected African-American governor in U.S. history. A resume to salute also includes former state senator, former Richmond mayor, and Bronze Star recipient for heroism in Korea.

But then there is the in-credible Mr. Wilder, as in "lacking credibility." That alter ego, alas, has dominated his relationship with Fredericksburg and other parties involved in the U.S. National Slavery Museum, a Wilder dream that the town and many others rightly embraced. Museums increase knowledge and spur imagination; one telling the story of American slavery, desirable in its own right, would also expand and enrich the storytelling power of the Civil War battlefields and museums thick in our region.

Officials of the museum--Mr. Wilder is its chairman and executive director--hoped to open it by 2004. Six years later, Fredericksburg can show visitors only a Spirit of Freedom Garden gone to seed and a delinquent real-estate tax bill of over $81,000. City Council has heard nothing lately from Mr. Wilder. Nor has the Silver Cos., which magnanimously donated valuable land for the facility. Those who gave money, time, and their own credibility to get the project going are in the dark. The Freedom Garden sculptor, who can't find out if he's supposed to complete a second piece or not, said it perfectly to the Richmond Times-Dispatch: "It's like chasing smoke with Wilder."

Mr. Wilder's museum dream remains valid; his trustworthiness, sadly, does not. Fredericksburg still welcomes the slavery museum. Its chairman should do right by all, particularly those long-gone souls he seeks to honor: hand the reins to an abler director, and step aside. That would be incredibly noble, and Doug Wilder at his best.