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National Slavery Museum Racked by Low Fundraising, Questions

Near battlefields where soldiers fought to preserve slavery, a solemn stone figure stands, arms outstretched, face turned skyward as if rejoicing over the broken shackles etched into its thick arms.

The sculpture anchors the Spirit of Freedom Garden, a gathering of artwork that's the first, and so far the only, sign of the $200 million United States National Slavery Museum long anticipated in a region heavy with Civil War history.

It was 1993 when L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first black elected governor and the grandson of slaves, proposed a museum that would tell their story.

Years later, the museum's future has become clouded by shifting opening dates, stalled fundraising and less-than-forthcoming organizers.

Despite millions of dollars in private and public dollars committed to the museum, organizers have given an unclear accounting of their finances: While the museum cites $50 million available, a 2006 tax return obtained by The Associated Press details $17.6 million in assets, much of that believed to be the value of a 38-acre proposed site.

Nearly five years after a ceremonial groundbreaking, the opening has drifted to 2008 and beyond. Contacted by the AP, neither developer Silver Companies nor architect C.C. Pei could say when the museum would open, though Pei said of a 2008 date, "We'd have to get started right now."

Asked to clarify the museum's future, Wilder said he was "finished explaining anything."

"We comply with every reporting schedule we have to comply with," said Wilder, 77, now mayor of Richmond. "If you wanna help raise some money, then help. Other than that, quit worrying us."

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Conceived of by Wilder during a trip to Africa, the project was considered for several Virginia regions before organizers chose a Fredericksburg plot donated by developers in 2001.

When complete, the center will feature a full-scale replica slave ship, and artifacts — from manacles to slave logs — detailing one of America's darkest chapters within more than 100,000 square feet of exhibit space.

A $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian, is planned to open in 2015 about an hour north, in Washington.

For now, grass marks the site of the Fredericksburg museum along the Rappahannock River.

Organizers blame fundraising they say has slowed amid a struggling economy, and Wilder has tapped powerful friends to help out.

In June 2006, entertainers Bill Cosby and Ben Vereen hosted a fundraiser in Washington, and that September, Cosby called on Americans to each donate $8, a number symbolizing slave shackles.

Museum director Vonita Foster said the efforts raised about $50,000 and under $1 million, respectively.

Cosby declined an AP request for an interview and a spokeswoman denied Foster's suggestion that the entertainer was planning a donation.

Foster is conscious of the skepticism, even as she counts the donations arriving at her office daily — just under $20,000 in gifts from average Americans each month.

"People do want us to begin construction, and I want us to begin construction. Nobody wants it as much as I do," Foster said.

"It's a viable project. It will happen. We will build in 2008."

Despite her optimism, Foster admits funding fits and starts.

"The money was just flowing in at one point," Foster said. "But then it just stopped after Katrina" as people focused on hurricane relief efforts.

At the same time, Foster said museum officials had to pay an army of consultants and exhibit designers.

"We have blueprints, we have drawings, we have exhibit designs," she said.

"... We are at a point where we can actually begin building because of all the money we have spent," she said. "And it's not cheap."

Tax records for the museum show expenses outpacing income.

A 2006 return showed functional expenses totaling $550,171; Foster makes $85,000.

The museum received $383,582 in direct public support during the same period. The document shows the museum raised $2.6 million in contributions from 2002 to 2005.

"As far as I know, we still have the pledges and the cash in kind around $50 million," Foster said.

She said Wilder, who heads the museum's board, recently told her construction of a visitor center could move forward.

"That's the first time he's ever said we're going to build in 2008," she said.

Foster deferred to Wilder when asked how much of the $10.8 million price tag museum officials had available. Days later, Wilder directed questions back to Foster.

"I really don't have access to the books," Wilder, the museum's founder, told the AP.

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Lately, Fredericksburg officials speak tentatively about the project.

"I hope it does happen. I guess I have to leave it at that," said Mayor at-large Thomas Tomzak.

Local tourism officials say they've stopped promoting the museum. Meanwhile, a request to put a city council member on the museum's board for accountability has stalled, according to Councilman Matthew Kelly.

"As far as I'm aware," he said, "they're still thinking about it."

Setbacks aren't uncommon among new museum projects, explained Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. Bell cited Washington's National Museum of the American Indian, first established in 1989.

"The building wasn't completed until 2004," Bell said. "So it can take a long time sometimes to get your story together, and you've got to do a lot of pavement pounding and convincing people."

Foster said officials have declined pressures to begin building until they know they can afford completion, a smart move, Bell said.

"Just building something with the money they've got, that isn't necessarily a good plan, it may backfire," he said. "You may end up building something that can't be completed."

But Bell warned the project could be in trouble if organizers lose community support.

Two miles from the museum's site, Fredericksburg resident Karen Kallay says she considered giving to the effort, before she began questioning the project's future.

"At this point I think they're shooting themselves in the foot," she said. "If they've got a problem, then you work on the problem. But that usually includes being open about it."

The only problem Foster sees is a troubled economy.

She said the museum is stuck trying to raise money amid shifting priorities in America — "People are losing their homes" — and bad media coverage.

Wilder sees a different obstacle.

"It can open when people who you encourage to contribute do so — when the naysayers quit bothering us and when people really want to learn more about their history (and) show that they do," Wilder said.