Never Enough Slavery Museums

In a recent LRC column, I made mention of the city of Charleston’s proposed $35 million slavery museum that will be constructed on ten acres of waterfront property. This surprised some of my respondents, who wondered, not only about the size, but also whether the new museum was needed as the city already has at least three museums with extensive slavery exhibits.

The question: how many slavery museums does a city need? Or: how many slavery museums does the United States need? is currently a much-debated topic. Unfortunately, the debate was a little late getting started because slavery museums have become the latest trend sweeping the nation.

In May, 2002, Bill Gwaltney, a member of the National Park Service and President of the Association of African American Museums, said of slavery museums: "We counted 19 new projects just last year and we knew there were several more. Clearly, there are several dozen more that are anticipated in 2002. They are all over the country, too. They’re in the Midwest, the West, the Northeast and the South. It represents a maturation of thought about the breadth and depth of American history."

The numbers cited by Gwaltney indicate that, in a two-year period, 50 or more new slavery museums were constructed throughout the nation. This phenomenal rate of growth greatly exceeds the spread of civil rights museums in prior years. If this rate of growth continues, we can anticipate that all major cities as well as most moderately sized cities will soon have both a civil rights museum and a slavery museum. Furthermore, the day may come when a family traveling across the nation will encounter, in every town it drives through, a McDonald’s, a Burger King, a Wal-Mart, a Target, a Best Western and a slavery museum.

Gwaltney also stated: "It has often been left to African-American professionals to tell these less-than-pretty stories. These are hard things to look at. But it is the kind of thing that has to be confronted in order for us to make progress as a nation."

Frank Caltroppa, superintendent of the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic site in Atlanta, that also houses slavery exhibits, made this comment regarding slavery museums: "America is now ready to face the horrific acts of our past with hope of building a future rooted in truth and justice. The story is often noble but is sometimes shameful and sorrowful."

The $35 million facility planned for Charleston is just one of many new large-scale slavery museums. A $33 million African-American History museum in Baltimore will tell the story of slavery when it opens in the near future. Its 80,000 square-feet will make it the second largest African-American museum in America; the largest being the 120,000 square-foot facility in Detroit. Construction will soon begin on a national slavery museum in Fredericksburg, VA and another national African-American museum is being proposed for the National Mall in Washington.

Cincinnati is trying to raise $110 million for its National Underground Railroad Freedom Center which will tell the story of escaped slaves. And a slavery website is also being constructed.

In addition to these new slavery museums, the National Park Service stated that the new Liberty Bell site in Philadelphia will no longer focus primarily on the Revolutionary War. It will now include numerous exhibits on slavery. This decision was reached after historians lobbied for an expanded discussion of slavery at the various Park Service sites around the nation. The changes at the Liberty Bell site were based on arguments that George Washington and other early presidents owned slaves. And, of course, the National Park Service has already added slavery exhibits to all Civil War battle sites.

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, history professor at the University of North Carolina, said of these new slavery museums: "The proliferation of museums speaks of African-Americans’ desire to create an ennobling history of blacks’ struggle for civil rights. So they’re popping up all over. It’ll be much more interesting to see how whites respond to a museum of slavery. I can imagine whites having much more difficulty with a slavery museum."

Brundage’s assessment of "whites having much more difficulty with a slavery museum" is refuted by existing exhibits on slavery at museums and other sites throughout the country; exhibits implemented primarily by whites. On the other hand, I believe that many whites would indeed object to the spread of slavery museums in the numbers cited by Mr. Gwaltney. And, not surprisingly, some communities are already expressing concern over having too many slavery museums. To this complaint, Bill Gwaltney responded:" But the African-American experience is not monolithic. We don’t all have the same story. There is a regionalism that is developing, plus, people are interested in learning the California story, connections with Canada, connections with Mexico."

It is not only whites who are concerned about this excess of slavery museums. Support from the black community has been less than enthusiastic. A typical negative response came from a black lady in Charleston: "Why are we bringing all this up now? This was something that happened 150 years ago. Why can’t we just move on?"

One reason why we can’t move on is because of posturing white liberals, especially those politicos who think they are currying favor with black voters. An example is Charleston’s opportunistic Mayor, Joe Riley. Mr. Riley can always be found at any rally for politically correct causes. When protestors marched in South Carolina’s capital to demand the removal of the Confederate flag, Mr. Riley was at the head of the parade, tripping over other marchers in his attempt to put his face in front on the TV cameras.

Charleston’s proposed ten-acre slavery museum is the brainchild of Mayor Joe Riley who states that the facility will "go beyond emancipation to about 1900, covering the period of Jim Crow in the South." Like most politicians of his stripe, Riley is only concerned about the political mileage he can get out of this project and he ignores the law of unintended consequences. Once the museum is opened, it will require a revision of Charleston tourism brochures, possibly changing the image of Charleston from a colorful antebellum city to a major slavery port. How such a change would impact Charleston’s tourism industry is unknown.

Incredibly, Riley said of his proposed ten-acre slavery museum: "This is a part of our history, our American history, that is under-explained and under-presented." Under-explained? Under-presented? Where has Joe Riley been for the past half-century? The Fiji Islands?

For the past several decades, slavery, and that conjectural social malady "the legacy of slavery," has been one of the most discussed and analyzed subjects in the United States. Slavery and the legacy of slavery are also among the media’s favorite subjects for discussion. And, of course, during the annual Black History Month, we hear all over again about slavery and the legacy of slavery. Consequently, although a high school student might not be able to find Kansas on a map, he could write a term paper on slavery.

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