Saturday, May 17, 2014

Slavery Museum

A short article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch describes a situation that could lead to controversy in that happy village on the James River. L.Douglas Wilder, 83 year-old ex-governor of Virginia and one-time mayor of Richmond wants a planned Slavery Museum to be erected on the site where once stood the First African Baptist Church on 14th and Broad, in central Richmond.  This is contrary to the previous plan to erect the museum in the Shockoe Bottom district, a warehouse neighborhood that became the night life center of the city and is now also the site of a proposed new baseball park for the Richmond Flying Squirrels.  In antebellum Richmond, Shockoe Bottom was the location of the slave market for the area and then the Richmond Slave Trail, a walk through points of interest in the history of North American Slavery.

There are museums that collect the artifacts of almost everything. We have art museums, automobile museums, mustard museums, a prison museum, and even a roller skating museum. What do we think that a museum devoted to slavery might display? There could be dioramas of slave life in 18th century Virginia, displays of the fixtures and furniture, if any, found in the primitive habitations of the slaves. There would be multi-media presentations of slave life and the history of the practice in the US from the arrival of the first slaves from Africa in 1619 until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. In fact, there is just such a museum
60 miles down the road in Jamestown.

First African Baptisit Church, Richmond, Virginia

Be that as it may, what is it that a trip through the proposed slavery museum is meant to accomplish? Is it supposed to demonstrate how evil slavery was? Most Americans are very much aware of the evils of slavery, although none of them have any personal experience with it in this country.  Is it to spread knowledge that will insure that the "peculiar institution" is never resurrected here? Probably not much chance of that happening. It could be considered a memorial to the slaves of the past, but why would people who found themselves in an unfortunate situation necessarily be memorialized?

If one were to compare the response to the experience of the black slaves of Virginia to that of the native Americans of the US, one would have to notice that apparently it is worse to enslave someone than it is to kill them and take their property. Maybe that's true, after all, the state motto of New Hampshire is "Live Free or Die". So if indeed enslaving someone is the ultimate wrong, why is the penal system different?

The ultimate punishment in America, or anywhere else, is death. In fact, it's so ultimate that there's been a huge effort to eliminate the death penalty all over the country. At the same time there's been a trend to maximize prison sentences, to hold people in cages for extended periods of time, while making them work for 12 cents an hour. Obviously, some part of America considers death a greater punishment than slavery. But another part of the country, or maybe the same parts but at different moments, considers slavery worse than death.

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