Representing the heritage of slavery may be the toughest challenge at historical sites in Virginia.
You may see characters dressed in costume at various historic sites in Virginia, but most stop short of interpreting the institution of slavery. Obviously, no historic site is going to re-enact the cruel punishments imposed upon recalcitrant slaves - but it is easy to find a famous Virginia plantation that offers no more than passing comments about the majority of people who lived there.
Some historic plantations such as Mount Vernon built re-creations of slave cabins and marked the locations of slave graveyards. Other than Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and Colonial Williamsburg, however, few sites in Virginia have dedicated substantial resources towards presenting the slave experience to modern visitors. The colonial plantations along Route 5, between Richmond and Williamsburg, preserve the houses of the wealthy gentry. Tourism marketing highlights those homes, and omits mention of the structures of the majority of residents at those sites - the enslaved workers.
Gunston Hall is owned by the state of Virginia, but interpretation is provided by a non-government partner. The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America and the state government have restored the plantation house at great expense, but the dwellings occupied by slaves who worked the fields are missing from the landscape. The story of slavery is not omitted completely at Gunston Hall, but a visitor could easily learn about George Mason's life without understanding why he had so much free time to write letters about political philosophy.
the slave quarters at "Log Town" in the woods west of the mansion at Gunston Hall are mentioned in some interpretive signs, but none of those pine log structures were re-created like other wooden outbuildings
Smithfield Plantation in Blacksburg mimics the Gunston Hall approach. That plantation was founded in the 1770's not just by Col. William Preston, but also by slaves that he purchased and brought west of the Blue Ridge.
In the 1840's, a Preston descendant bought slaves in Norfolk, and brought them west to Smithfield Plantation. A slave in that group from Norfolk named Jim Barbour sought to escape, and ultimately drowned in the Ohio River. A news article about the story noted it's impossible to tell the story of Jim Barbour without telling the story of the Prestons at Smithfield - but a modern visitor to the plantation may learn the story of the Prestons without getting the story about slaves like Jim Barbour.1
Colonial Williamsburg seeks to provide an authentic representation of colonial life, but demonstrating interactions between slaves/masters stimulated strong reactions from tourists. Some interrupted historic presentations to challenge the "slave" to explain why they are not setting a "good example" to children by asserting basic human rights.2
One solution is expensive: double the number of interpreters. Put one in traditional garb acting as a slave - but have another interpreter in modern dress. The interpreter acting as a slave can avoid breaking out of their pre-Civil War role, while the interpreter in modern dress can articulate the context and history of the "peculiar institution" of slavery.
Former governor Douglas Wilder (the first African American to be elected governor in the United States, and the grandchild of a slave) had plans to make the story of slavery into a major tourist attraction by opening a museum of slavery. He flirted with locating the U.S. National Slavery Museum in the Jamestown area, where slaves first arrived in Virginia. He then rejected Richmond, and selected Fredericksburg.3Even after Governor Wilder was elected mayor of Richmond, he still rejected proposals to locate the museum there. After the old Confederate cannon manufacturing plant, Tredegar Iron Works, re-opened on October 7, 2006 as the Civil War Visitor Center, the new exhibits stimulated discussion along the lines of "if we could get the mayor to move the slavery museum to Richmond, the city could tell the whole story of the Civil War here..."
Wilder chose Fredericksburg in part because it was closer to the population center in Northern Virginia, but also in part because the major developer in Fredericksburg donated 38 acres for the museum at the "Celebrate Virginia" development. Wilder's fundraising efforts to build a museum failed, and after a few sculptures were installed no construction was ever started.
Wilder was too busy as mayor of Richmond to build a museum in time for the 2007 commemoration of the last 400 years of English settlement in Virginia, and his prickly personality was a factor as well the major recession starting in 2008. That year, the City of Fredericksburg lost patience and rejected Wilder's request to eliminate the property taxes on the museum site, leading to a series of lawsuits over control of the 38 acres.4
The slavery museum project went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011. That temporarily blocked Fredericksburg from selling the property in order to collect the property taxes. In 2013 the parcel was supposed to be transferred to a new owner, who obtained city approval to build a baseball stadium on the site and would pay the back taxes. That transfer was supposed to end plans for a slavery museum in Fredericksburg.
The saga continued, however. The ballpark plans collapsed when site development cost far exceeded initial estimates and the Hagerstown Suns dropped plans to move the Class A baseball team to Fredericksburg. In 2015 the city renewed efforts to force a sale of the 38-acre site and collect over $650,000 in back taxes and interest.5
The failure in Fredericksburg triggered a new effort in Richmond to locate a slavery museum there. In 2014, Governor Wilder endorsed building a location in Shockoe Valley near the old Lumpkin Slave Jail. The former governor was famous for his independent streak, which limited the willingness of others to work with him. He failed to tell the Virginia Commonwealth University about his plans, before he recommended that the National Slavery Museum be located in a building currently being used by the VCU medical school.6
Virginia missed its window of opportunity to open a slavery museum before the Smithsonian Institution opened the $250 million National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in 2016.
If a slavery museum is ever completed in Richmond, attendance will demonstrate if there is a large-enough audience interested in slavery to support a museum in Richmond, just 100 miles away from the Smithsonian facility. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond has thrived thanks to state and local support, despite the competition from Federally-supported art museums across the Potomac River.
Governor Wilder was not the first to experience failure by trying to interpret slavery. The Walt Disney Corporation proposed to incorporate the slavery experience in the "Disney America" theme park. The park was planned for western Prince William County, near Haymarket and not far from DC.
Why there, rather than in Charleston, South Carolina or near Jamestown? Disney hoped to attract some of the tourists that already came to Washington, DC. Disney America might grow into a destination resort over time, drawing visitors just to see the theme park - but in the short run, the facility would benefit from tourists already coming to the national capital.
The historical community opposed the Disney America project. The primary concern was protecting Manassas National Battlefield Park from development similar to sprawl surrounding Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The Disney publicity campaign to soften opposition was damaged when a spokesman, referring to the historical accuracy planned for the theme park, suggested visitors would get an authentic experience:7
The idea of visitors getting an authentic experience with slavery, as either master or slave, was not helpful to the company's effort to generate political support. Disney abandoned the Disney America proposal in 1993, and the site was developed into residential subdivisions..
In 2010, Governor Bob McDonnell triggered a public relations uproar when he issued a proclamation at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans declaring April to be Confederate History Month. McDonnell's proclamation was designed in part to increase tourism during the 150th Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, but his statement did not mention slavery. The omission stirred memories of similar proclamations by Governor Allen and Governor Gilmore, which were perceived as racially insensitive. McDonnell quickly apologized for the omission, and in his final budget proposed $5 million for a slavery museum in Richmond.
Governor McDonnell sought to support tourism in Virginia through commemoration of African-American heritage, as well as through commemoration of the Civil War. Left unclear is whether tourists are interested in slavery. One assessment is that slavery and tourism, to many Americans, do not mix, and one historian even titled an essay "Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen, But Does Anybody Want to Hear about Them When They're on Vacation?"8