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. Trying to reverse the trend, museum fund-raisers have been contacting accountants and attorneys of wealthy black people to talk up the tax advantages of donating to the arts. They are also hitting up big corporations. Wilder has begun soliciting companies that benefited financially from slavery in the past.
"It's up to us to cultivate the interest of all African-Americans in what we're doing," says Michael Fox, executive director of the $75 million Muhammad Ali Center, which opened its doors late last year in the boxer's hometown of Louisville, Ky. Despite a two-year fund-raising campaign, only a single black athlete donated to the center: former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. "You do what you can, and I think a lot of us are still searching for what to do with what we have," says basketball star Kevin Garnett, the highest-paid player in the NBA, who has committed to funding the construction of three to four houses a month for Katrina victims over the next two years. "There's no book to tell us how to do it, and we do have a lot of people coming at us all the time."
Still, the generation gap in arts donations is a problem. Established celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby have been big contributors to African-American cultural institutions: Cosby donated a million dollars to the Slavery Museum, and Ben Vereen is hosting a fund-raiser for it at Lincoln Center next weekend. Hip-hop historian Kevin Powell says that for institutions like the Slavery Museum to survive, young blacks will have to take responsibility. "I think this generation has a very 'me, me' attitude, and it's to our detriment," says Powell--for the lessons of history are too important to forget.