Information on Slavery Museum Hard to Get

Ed Jones, Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Virginia), February 20, 2008

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A national museum for the study of slavery, spearheaded by the first elected black governor in the United States, is proposed for Fredericksburg.

So how are the plans progressing? What’s the latest construction schedule? What’s the financial plan for building and operating the museum? Has fundraising picked up? Is $200 million the goal? Or is that $300 million? How much money did that major fundraising event in D.C. raise in 2006?

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I asked three of our reporters who have worked on this story in recent years to describe museum leaders’ attitudes toward releasing news about the project.

Every one of them documented a pattern of resistance to almost every request. One described the museum and its staff as “an impenetrable fortress.”

The result has been that the public, and in some cases the public’s representatives, have been left in the dark. Even Jud Honaker of the Silver Cos., the developer of the Celebrate Virginia project that would include the museum, has said he doesn’t know where things stand.

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A museum staff member literally shut the door in the face of one of our reporters when she arrived at museum offices with a written request to see a financial report the museum is required to make public.

Reporters calling museum offices to speak to the executive director, Vonita Foster, have been told that, “Dr. Foster does not take calls.” They are referred to a Washington PR firm, which, in some cases, has taken days to return our calls. And then there are few answers.

In 2005, when former Gov. Doug Wilder came to Fredericksburg to hold a press conference, the museum staff notified several media outlets from Washington to Richmond, but not The Free Lance-Star. When a museum PR person was asked why the local paper was not notified, he said, “Well, you know, tit for tat,” an apparent reference to our legitimate reporting on questions about the $1 million city loan to the museum.

And that’s not all the public money involved in this project. Gov. Tim Kaine has included a $100,000 appropriation to the museum in his proposed budget. That would bring state support for the museum, which has missed one deadline after another for starting construction, to more than $200,000.

Gerald A. Foster, who has been identified as the “scholar in residence” at the museum and is the husband of the executive director, wrote a letter to the editor last month referring to the “racist diatribes” of the newspaper. In objecting to an editorial cartoon on the museum and the paper’s coverage generally, he criticized “pathetic, malicious, small-minded people.”

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Vonita Foster

Vonita W. Foster, Ph.D, executive director—she doesn’t take calls.

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