Learning to Give; New Black-History Museums Need Cash

By Samuels, Allison | Newsweek, February 20, 2006 | Go to article overview

Learning to Give; New Black-History Museums Need Cash


Samuels, Allison, Newsweek


Byline: Allison Samuels

Former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder used to prod his father endlessly to share memories of his family's time in slavery. "The little we did learn from him was that my grandfather lived on a different plantation and had to sneak off to visit the family on weekends," says the 70-year-old, who was the country's first African-American governor. "His owner would beat him when he got back but finally gave up when he realized my grandfather was going to see his family, beating or not." The precious few tales of a painful past are what inspired Wilder to help found the United States National Slavery Museum, a $200 million project opening late next year in Fredricksburg, Va. "I know if at my age I don't know all there is to know about slavery, surely the young people of today have no idea."

The nation is about to get a big lesson in African-American history. At least seven major black museums, cultural centers and memorials have recently opened or are being developed, including a national African-American history museum and a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The surge has been made possible by the growth of a newly moneyed black elite. But with a combined price tag of $1 billion-and-counting for these new projects, that elite is facing an unprecedented demand for donations--and many aren't giving to museums and monuments.

Part of the problem is cultural. Donating to the arts is a low priority for all minority groups, and African-Americans in particular prefer to support churches, schools and educational funds, according to a 2004 study by the Coalition for New Philanthropy. That has left many black cultural centers scraping for funds. The nation's largest museum of black history, the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit, has been struggling for money and visitors for the past few years, while the African American Museum in Philadelphia was nearly forced to close its doors last year as it sank into debt. …

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