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Wilder hopes to revive slavery museum in Richmond

MORE: National Slavery Museum timeline and archives

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder is taking his vision of a national slavery museum to Richmond.

Wilder has been in discussions with Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones and Gov. Bob McDonnell about the possible construction of the museum in the city’s Shockoe Bottom section, once a thriving center of the slave trade in the decades leading to the Civil War.

Wilder’s initial proposal to build the slavery museum on a site in Fredericksburg has been crushed under a mountain of debt, continuing court battles and fundraising that dried up.

Last month, the owners of the Hagerstown Suns and Diamond Nation signed a contract with the slavery museum organization to purchase the 38-acre parcel where the museum was to have been built in Fredericksburg’s Celebrate Virginia South development.

That staved off an auction of the land that would have allowed Fredericksburg to receive the back taxes owed on the property. The city would still receive those funds when the land is sold to the baseball investors sometime in the next few months.

The Suns and Diamond Nation are now doing the planning and engineering work on the minor league baseball stadium and amateur baseball complex that they plan to build on the site. The Suns, a Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, plan to relocate there for the start of the 2015 season.

The Richmond Times–Dispatch reported Wednesday that the Richmond discussions have stalled over the timing of building the museum and Wilder’s role in the attraction.

The slavery museum was not part of the so-called heritage site proposed by Jones this week to recognize the history of the slave trade in the former capital of the Confederacy. The heritage site is part of a project that includes a new baseball stadium for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, as well as apartments, a hotel and a grocery store.

The Wilder museum is not the lone proposed slavery museum. Del. Delores I. McQuinn, D–Richmond, also wants to eventually build a national slavery museum at the site of the African burial grounds, with financial help from McDonnell and the state. She has been a leader in telling the story of Richmond’s lucrative commerce in slaves.

Wilder said in an interview Monday with the Times–Dispatch that he still has not received “anything in writing inviting the city to be the next host of the U.S. National Slavery Museum.”

Wilder said on his Twitter page Wednesday that he will be “saying something in this space soon about the US National Slavery Museum.”

Wilder first envisioned a national slavery museum in Virginia after a trip to Africa in the 1990s. He established a formidable board, including entertainer Bill Cosby, but he could never deliver on his dream.

Wilder, however, remains confident the museum will be built somewhere.

“The museum is going to make it, it’s going to fly,” said Wilder, the grandson of slaves. “The question is where.”

Richmond is not the only location under consideration. Hampton University President William R. Harvey is a member of the museum’s board and has expressed an interest in bringing the museum there.

—Staff reporter Bill Freehling contributed to this Associated Press report.