Fredericksburg Slavery Museum Files For Bankruptcy
By By Scott C. Boyd
(November 2011 Civil War News)
RICHMOND, Va. – The United States National Slavery Museum filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 21 in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. In addition, City of Fredericksburg is selling the land set aside for the unbuilt museum to satisfy unpaid real estate taxes.
This appears to mark the end of museum founder L. Douglas Wilder’s dream. The former Virginia governor, a grandson of slaves, came up with the idea for a national museum about slavery while on a 1992 trip to Africa.
Nonetheless, the bankruptcy filing signed by Wilder includes the following statement in Schedule I, Current Income: “Debtor currently receives no income. Debtor anticipates raising income within the year by restarting its fundraising efforts.”
A review of nearly 250 stories, editorials and letters to the editor of Fredericksburg’s newspaper, The Free Lance-Star, summarized below, chronicles the museum’s controversial history, strained relations with the city, shaky finances and penchant for secrecy.
In its Chapter 11 filing for protection from creditors, the museum lists its 38.165-acre site as an asset worth $7,633,000. The filing lists numerous artifacts as personal property, said by some to number 5,000-6,000 items, but states their value as “unknown.”
The two secured creditors are the City of Fredericksburg for unpaid taxes estimated by the museum as $300,000; and Pei Partnership Architects, which designed the museum, for $3,681,456.
Nine unsecured creditors are listed for a total of $3,233,784.
The museum’s assets of $7,633,000 exceed its indebtedness of $7,215,240 by $417,760.
Information obtained from City Treasurer G.M. Haney, however, indicates the unpaid taxes are lower than expected at $219,946 as of Oct. 13.
The money owed Pei Partnership Architects, including interest, is actually $5,168,002, according to court filings from the lawsuit Pei won against the museum last year. That figure does not include interest since then. The museum’s listing of Pei omitted the interest awarded by the judge.
Using these revised numbers, the museum’s indebtedness exceeds its assets by at least $988,732.
Neither Wilder nor former museum executive director Vonita W. Foster returned repeated calls seeking comment. Wilder’s attorney in the bankruptcy proceedings, Sandra R. Robinson, refused to speak about “substantive” matters and would not answer questions about details of the bankruptcy documents.
Wilder first publicly spoke about Fredericksburg as a possible museum site on April 28 at a meeting of slave descendants at James Madison’s Virginia home, Montpelier.
An oft-repeated complaint about secrecy concerning museum plans and information began with an Aug. 9 closed city council meeting. The possibility of locating the museum along the Rappahannock River, at the Silver Companies’ Celebrate Virginia 541-acre commercial and entertainment development beside Interstate 95 in Fredericksburg, was discussed by representatives of the museum, local developer Silver Companies, and the city council.
The Free Lance-Star filed and won a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to protest being excluded from the meeting.
On Aug. 15 the council voted to support the museum at Celebrate Virginia. It offered $1 million contingent on receiving further information about the plans and upon taking a second vote.
On Oct. 8 the museum’s board selected a 22-acres site at Celebrate Virginia donated by Silver Companies. Other sites considered included Richmond and Hampton.
In his first public meeting on Nov. 15, Wilder shared some information: a national design competition would be held; artifacts would be acquired through donation and loan, not purchase; the museum would cover slavery in America from the colonial period through abolition; the estimated cost was $150 million, but no money had been raised.
By the end of the year, Wilder said a portion of the museum would open in 2003. Silver Companies expanded its land donation to 38.165 acres to screen the museum from the commercial development.
Details about a “gift transfer agreement” between Silver Companies and the museum will be kept confidential, according to a March 14 newspaper story.
The museum’s first symposium was held at Howard University on March 19 and televised on C-SPAN.
The city council on March 26 approved giving $1 million to the museum under a contract defining services required of the museum to improve Celebrate Virginia that would also benefit the museum.
City funds were not be used for museum operating expenses and expenditures were to be regularly reported to council. A “special tax district” was created at Celebrate Virginia to tax the commercial tenants to pay back the $1 million.
Wilder visited Fredericksburg on April 12 looking for office space.
Museum office space was leased on Sept. 15 at Silver Companies’ big-box shopping center, Central Park, adjacent to Celebrate Virginia.
On Oct. 2 Wilder named former Peace Corps executive Earl W. Yates as museum executive director, Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert as museum board member, and Edward M. Robinson as senior advisor for development. Robinson later declined the job.
The museum will open in February 2007, Yates said Dec. 4.
The museum’s second symposium on May 1-2 at the Chicago Historical Society was closed to the media and public.
Yates’ last day as executive director was Aug. 11. No reason was given publicly for his firing. Dr. Vonita W. Foster, who had run the L. Douglas Wilder Library and Learning Resource Center at Virginia Union University in Richmond since 1989, replaced him.
The first annual museum report the city received on Oct. 14, 2003, failed to include the required information on how the city’s money was spent.
Wilder held a symbolic museum groundbreaking ceremony off-site, at nearby Kenmore mansion on Dec. 3. He also provided names of all seven museum board members.
The museum board received a closed-door briefing at Howard University on July 29 on the now-$200 million museum project.
Entertainer Bill Cosby attended a museum fundraiser held at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg on Sept. 24 and pledged to donate 10 performances, worth an estimated $20 million, to the museum.
Site clearing began on Dec. 21.
Museum director Foster wrote the city on March 24 requesting a waiver of construction fees worth about $30,000. After the city council requested more information, she withdrew the request on July 14.
The annual report delivered to the city on March 28 again omitted the required accounting for how the city’s money was spent.
On June 8 Foster announced the museum’s opening would be October 2007.
In a July 18 letter to the city Foster claimed the museum had $49 million in cash and pledges, but did not provide details.
On Aug. 9 the city council approved a special use permit request for a height variance to allow the museum to house a full-scale slave ship replica inside the building.
Foster delivered the museum’s final report on how it used the city’s $1 million on Nov. 8, but refused a subsequent request to hand over the studies performed under contract with the city, using the city’s money. Some councilors expressed concern that over half of the money was spent on administrative and personnel costs.
Foster elaborated on personnel expenses in a Dec. 29 letter.
At a Feb. 7 press conference at the National Press Club, Wilder and actor Ben Vereen asked corporations to help fund the museum.
A fundraising gala on June 3 in Washington, D.C., attracted 1,100 people. The museum did not release figures on the money it raised.
On Sept. 22, Wilder and Bill Cosby asked everyone in America to contribute $8 to the museum. Wilder said the number eight symbolically represented slave shackles.
On Feb. 20 Foster said the museum would have a “soft opening” in 2008.
The museum’s Spirit of Freedom Garden, which featured sculpture dedicated to those who fought to end slavery, opened on June 21 on 0.29 of the 38.165 acres.
In July Foster said the museum needed $10 million to build its 2,500-square-foot visitor center by the end of 2008. The museum was to be 290,000 square feet.
A Dec. 1 news story reported that donations were sharply down and the museum was running at a deficit.
The Free Lance-Star was denounced for “racist diatribes” in a Jan. 30 letter to the editor by the executive director’s husband, Gerald A. Foster, the museum’s scholar-in-residence.
A Feb. 20 editorial complained about the lack of information coming from the museum, including its reporters being told “Dr. Foster does not take calls.”
On May 16 Foster requested a one-year extension to the special use permit height variance, which was to expire Aug. 1. The city council granted it in September.
On June 4 Foster asked for a real estate tax exemption for the museum retroactive to 2002, the first year the museum owed property taxes. Wilder then appeared before city council to ask for the exemption from then on, not retroactively.
The city council voted 6-1 to deny the real estate tax exemption on June 24. It would have cost the city nearly $43,000 a year in lost revenue.
The museum’s registration with the state to solicit funds for charitable purposes expired in August and was not renewed. The newspaper reported that the museum website continued to solicit funds.
The museum’s tax bill for $21,372, due Nov. 15, was not paid.
According to a Feb. 27 news article Vonita Foster resigned sometime since November and the museum’s phone gave a message that it could only be used for outgoing calls.
On March 11 Wilder said the museum board was committed to the Fredericksburg location and that only a lack of funding, caused by the nation’s general economic downturn, was preventing progress.
A Dec. 5 Free Lance-Star article noted that “signs of life are hard to detect.” The museum sign on the office door was gone as were the executive director and staff. The height variance permit had expired, the phone was disconnected, the website was defunct and the museum was delinquent on taxes and had not filed a federal tax return for 2008. For months the museum’s address was a Richmond post office box.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in a Feb. 18 letter threatened to issue a press release announcing that the museum is allegedly soliciting charitable contributions without being properly registered to do so.
Wilder replied by letter on Feb. 26 that the office in Fredericksburg was closed and the museum was not soliciting contributions. He said that “as soon as economic conditions improve,” offices would reopen and fundraising would resume.
On April 5 a New York court delivered a default judgment against the museum for Pei Partnership Architects. The verdict was for $3,681,455.50 plus interest on that since Nov. 1, 2005. When the order was signed on April 26 the amount of interest due was $1,486.996.90, in addition to $550 in court costs.
A Dec. 29 article noted that the museum has not paid real estate taxes to the city since 2008 and that after Dec. 31 the city could begin the procedure to sell the museum land.
A Feb. 13 news article featured a couple who donated 95 items to the museum and never received a reply to numerous inquiries about their artifacts.
A statement from Wilder on Feb. 15 reiterated the museum board’s determination to build the museum in Fredericksburg, saying they were “undaunted.” He said that donated artifacts were in storage and being taken care of. The museum was in “standby mode.” When economic conditions improved, fundraising would resume for a “scaled down” version of itself, he wrote.
In a July 13 letter the city gave Wilder 30 days to pay the overdue taxes before it began action to sell the museum’s land. Wilder did not respond.
Sept. 21, the museum filed for Chapter 11 protection from its creditors.