Museum will focus on slavery

National facility set for 2008 opening in Virginia reflects growing interest in issue

August 20, 2006|By HEATHER GEHLERT | HEATHER GEHLERT,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. -- Inferiority, servitude and racism are a few of the words that Vonita W. Foster uses when she travels to middle schools and high schools to teach students about slavery - a subject that, more than 140 years after its end, still makes black students squirm.

Foster is on a mission to change that. She has become a driving force in creating the United States' first national museum dedicated to slavery.

With 290,000 square feet of space and a $200 million budget, the U.S. National Slavery Museum, scheduled to open here in 2008, is a high-end example of a growing market trend, as the tourism industry realizes the popularity and profitability of opening and re-examining one of American history's ugliest scars.

Slavery studies has been growing as a field of interest over the past few decades, as people have sought the uncensored, unsanitized story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade - a topic that Foster, who will be the museum's executive director, says is glossed over in textbooks and movies.

What many don't know, she said, is the history of African-Americans' selling their own people, toddlers in shackles, and America, including the North, benefiting financially from slave labor.

Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the grandson of slaves, proposed the museum 14 years ago while on a trip to Africa.

He wanted it in Virginia, the birthplace of slavery in the American colonies, and selected Fredericksburg because of its proximity to the nation's capital (about 50 miles south of Washington) and availability of land (a developer donated 38 acres along the Rappahannock River).

In addition, several smaller slavery museums and exhibits have opened across the South, particularly as the children and grandchildren of black people who migrated North in the 1930s and 1940s trace their family histories.

"There's this demographic of baby boomer African-Americans with lots of leisure time and income returning to discover their roots," said Rich Harrill of the International Tourism Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

The segment of the travel business known as "heritage tourism" encompasses many ethnic groups and allows travelers to see how their identity fits into a broader cultural history. It is the second-fastest-growing segment of tourism,. behind nature-based excursions, Harrill said.

Local and state tourism agencies are spending more on marketing heritage tourism. They are particularly targeting black families.

According to census data, the number of black middle-class households increased 62 percent, from 2.1 million to 3.4 million, between 1990 and 1999. White middle-class households, by contrast, increased 22 percent, from 30.7 million to 37.5 million.

Last year, the Virginia Tourism Corp. spent $450,000 - 15 percent of its advertising budget - to reach the African-American market; the Missouri Tourism Commission spent more than double that on programs to encourage black tourism.

Those marketing efforts are working. African-Americans spent $30.5 billion on leisure travel in the United States in 2004, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. Travel volume among the same group increased by 4 percent between 2002 and 2004.

The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore had more than 200,000 visitors last year, up from 100,000 a decade ago. The National Slavery Museum expects at least a half-million visitors a year.

Heather Gehlert writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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