Doug Wilder’s National Slavery Museum Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

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October 3, 2011; Source: MSNBC | As Washington Post blogger Peter Galuszka said, “Doug Wilder has always marched to a different drummer.”  The grandson of a slave, Wilder was first African-American elected governor in the U.S., though his tenure in Virginia involved a number of battles with his own Democratic Party colleagues.  Later, he was Richmond’s first directly elected mayor, though there too his term in office was controversial, including a prolonged and costly battle to unseat the school board. 

Wilder’s individual drummer also led him to begin planning a decade ago for the National Slavery Museum.  As of September, it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  As everyone knows, a Chapter 11 allows an entity to reorganize, sort out its debts, and develop a strategy for moving forward, protected, at least for a time, from creditors’ lawsuits.  According to various press accounts, the bankruptcy filing puts the position of the National Slavery Museum as having liabilities somewhere between $1 million and $10 million and unsecured creditors claims of more than $3 million. 

How Wilder gets the Museum back on its feet is going to be one big challenge, but relevant to NPQ Newswire readers is how the Museum got into this fix in the first place.  We pulled the 990s on the Museum for our own take, and discovered one 990 from 2003 and then three covering 2005, 2006, and 2007.  Somehow, the filing of 990s, or at least Guidestar’s access to them, stopped.  As of 2007, the Museum had an end-of-the-year fund balance of $17.6 million.  How did the Museum plummet in four years from a hefty positive position to a complete reversal?  Why, for example, did fundraising sink from $938,000 in 2005 to $383,000 in 2006 and climb back up to $577,000 in 2007?  Anomalies due to FASB 116 and 117 reporting requirements, or were these large shifts the result of something going on with the Museum’s fundraising strategies.  It wasn’t the recession, which came later. Foundation grants recorded on the Foundation Directory Online were pretty paltry—only 6 grants totaling $195,000 for 2006 to 2008 from SunTrust, Verizon, Wachovia Wells Fargo, and Dominion, all corporations doing business in Virginia.

The Museum was governed by a powerhouse board of directors which included comedian Bill Cosby who reportedly donated $1.3 to the project.  Others on the board included the presidents of two HBCUs (Patrick Swygert of Howard University and William Harvey of Hampton University), the late John Hope Franklin, Duke University professor of history and expert on the America’s slave-holding era, Jacob Gelt Dekker, a Dutch entrepreneur who founded a museum on the slave trade in Curacao, Prince Ermias Selassie, grandson of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, and real estate investors Larry Silver of Boca Raton and John Elkington of Memphis.  The executive director, Vonita Foster, was also on the board, listed in the 990s as working 40 hours a week, though her Linked In profile identifies her as the executive director of the Lest We Forget Foundation as well (she left the Museum apparently in 2008 and links to the Foundation no longer work).  Now a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Wilder was also on the board.

Wilder’s plans for the museum were big: a 100,000 square feet designed by architect C.C. Pei (who reportedly is owed over $5 million for his services), a 450-seat theater, a full-scale replica of a slave ship, and innumerable artifacts and documents of the slave-trading era (lenders and donors of those pieces reportedly want them back and are complaining that Wilder has been less than fully forthcoming).  The Economist quotes Wilder attributing the Museum’s financial ebb-tide to the recession, but the downslide seems to have started before the recession and the missing years’ 990s are just partial evidence that there was something going on there that wasn’t representing the best possible management of a nonprofit.  The Economist intimates that it doesn’t buy Wilder’s explanation, citing the existence of other museums on the slave trade (such as one in Charleston SC) doing well or competition in the metro Washington DC area from the National Museum of African-American History, financed with $250 million from the federal government. 

Museums have had a tough time in recent years, but the story of the Slavery Museum might only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of donors’ withdrawal of support to the museum industry.  There is so much value to having a really significant national museum that teaches the American public about this terrible period of American history and its legacy, but there is something happening with Doug Wilder’s museum that seems to be more than just fundraising challenges.  Given Wilder’s persona and career, including his own important role in the African-American history of the United States, the upcoming narrative of the National Slavery Museum will be worth watching.—Rick Cohen