A Cause That Scares Business

The ugliness recalled by a National Slavery Museum gives corporate donors the jitters

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The idea first came to then-Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder in 1992 as he stood before the Door of No Return on Gorée Island, off the coast of Senegal, from which countless Africans were sent in shackles for enslavement in America. A year later, during a conference in Gabon, Wilder publicly disclosed his private obsession: creating a national museum of slavery. For the past 13 years he has been trying to transform his $200 million dream into a concrete-and-glass reality.

He has a long way to go. Wilder, the 75-year-old grandson of slaves and now the mayor of Richmond, the former Confederate capital, has the backing of such entertainment figures as Bill Cosby and Ben Vereen, who played Chicken George in the TV miniseries Roots, and eminent historians such as John Hope Franklin of Duke University. But to start a museum it's almost mandatory to have corporate money, and Wilder has discovered that many companies aren't eager to give to a cause tied to the country's most enduring sin.


Museum officials say they have received $50 million in pledges or contributions from corporations and individuals, topped by Cosby's $1 million gift last year. Business benefactors include Wal-Mart (WMT ), Wachovia Bank (WB ), Dominion Power, and Philip Morris (MO ). But others have hesitated to touch the topic. "They say: 'It's too sensitive. You're just trying to pull scabs off of old wounds,"' Wilder recounts.

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Two hours north of Richmond, the government-supported Smithsonian Institution is planning a National Museum of African American History & Culture. That project, to be located in Washington, will have a much broader focus. Its advisory board includes business powerhouses such as Oprah Winfrey, Time Warner (TWX ) CEO Richard D. Parsons, Black Entertainment Television (VIA ) founder Robert L. Johnson, and American Express (AXP ) CEO Kenneth I. Chennault. Wilder's slavery museum has no prominent CEOs on its board. (He says he hopes to make inroads in coming months.) After years of effort to find a location and delays in fund-raising, Wilder concedes that he won't meet his original target of a 2007 opening.

Fund-raising veterans say Wilder has a tough sell. Slavery "is an issue that sometimes people don't want to think about because it reminds them of how ugly life can be," says Adam Goozh, CEO of CreateHope, a firm that advises companies on charitable giving but has no role in Wilder's campaign. More generally, corporate belt-tightening and the large amount of charity directed to victims of Hurricane Katrina last year have made fund-raising more competitive.

Plans for the proposed slavery museum call for a 290,000-square-foot structure overlooking the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Va., halfway between Richmond and Washington and near four famous Civil War battlefields. The museum's design, by New York architect C.C. Pei, son of the legendary architect I.M. Pei, includes 10 permanent galleries, two libraries, several classrooms, a lecture hall, and a 450-seat theater. Its visual centerpiece is to be a full-size replica of the Portuguese slave ship Dos Amigos, reaching nearly 100 feet off the ground, which will be visible through a wall of glass to drivers cruising on nearby I-95.

Museum officials say $100 million is needed for building to begin, and they are seeking another $100 million to furnish the facility, create an endowment, and cover annual operating costs, estimated at $2.8 million to $3.5 million.

But the fund-raising requires a delicate pitch. Wilder argues that many businesses in the South and North alike benefited financially from the slave trade, including tobacco, cotton, textiles, banking, insurance, and shipping. "When you look at the totality of the picture, the purpose of slavery was money and commerce and trade," he says. "Slavery was about the subjugation of the human spirit, but it comes down to economics."


Wilder is looking for corporate cash to illuminate that past. Cosby says the museum should deliver a blunt message to business: "Slaves have never been repaid for the work they performed to make this country rich." But pushing the guilt button too hard can backfire, and Wilder is quick to point out that "it's not about reparation. It's about education."

Companies such as Philip Morris and Wachovia, which have acknowledged that their corporate predecessors had ties to slavery, are among those that have pledged to help. The museum will have "a lasting and measurable impact," says Frank Addison, Wachovia's director for philanthropy. "It doesn't hurt that it will bring jobs and development to that area," he adds. Wachovia, the leading bank in the Virginia-Washington corridor in terms of deposits, has pledged to make a "substantial donation" but has not specified the amount. Sources with knowledge of the situation say they expect it to be at least $100,000.

Wilder hopes to persuade leading African American CEOs such as Time Warner's Parsons to help. But Parsons, a board colleague of Wilder's at predominantly black Howard University in Washington, so far hasn't agreed. "I told him: 'Dick, [museum fund-raisers] will be calling on you, but I'm coming [for you],"' Wilder says. "And he laughed." A Time Warner spokesperson declined to comment and said Parsons was unavailable.

It took years for Wilder to settle on a location for the museum. After attempts to place it in Jamestown and Richmond fizzled because of land costs or civic indifference, he was approached by developer Larry Silver, who donated land for the museum near a new project he bills as "North America's largest retail resort."

Wilder's effort has come a long way from that day in Senegal. The museum's staff of 12 has collected more than 5,000 artifacts related to slavery and has launched a Web site.

A June gala at Washington's Warner Theatre attracted 1,400 people, who paid $100 to $300 to see a show headlined by Vereen and Cosby. Museum officials say they will target athletes, entertainers, and churches -- as well as businesses -- in coming months. "Governor Wilder can get done what he puts his mind to," says Silver, the developer who donated the land.

Wilder seems undaunted, in part because of how personal this cause is. He wants the attention not only of big corporations and white Americans but also of blacks, who may not have looked dead on at the history of slavery. As a young boy in Richmond, Wilder recalls, "my father didn't want to talk about it, even though his parents were slaves. My mother had to force him to talk about it.... And he would bite down on his pipe, clench it, and almost snap it in two. And he would tell a little, and I would ask for more, and he would say: 'I got to go now."'

By Richard S. Dunham

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