A Tobacco Row

Most of you have have probably heard that the United States National Slavery Museum is currently under construction in Fredericksburg, Virginia. As a former resident who still visits often, I am excited about the museum, which is currently scheduled to open in 2008 (pushed back from 2007 already). Of course, I could rant at length about the decision to construct the museum an hour south of Washington, D.C. while other museums find a prominent place on the National Mall, but I won’t.

Nevertheless, trouble is brewing. The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star reported on March 3 that the Museum, which has been beset by financial difficulties (hence, the delayed opening), accepted a $200,000 gift from tobacco giant Philip Morris. Since then, there have been two separate calls on the editorial page criticizing the museum for accepting the money.

The first came from Peter H. Fisher, vice-president of state issues for Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who stated that, “The museum, which wants to help educate children about the ravages of slavery, is joining forces with a company that continues to target children for another form of slavery–addiction to tobacco” [“Slavery museum, give back Philip Morris gift,” March 12].

Fisher makes an excellent (if exaggerated) point, but in my opinion, the second letter to the editor is more interesting and nuanced. Pearl Duncan, a New Yorker who claims to have traced her ancestry back to both slaves and Fredericksburg tobacco traders of the 18th century, writes in response to Fisher [“Big tobacco owes slavery museum much more,” March 15]:

I agree that the National Slavery Museum has done itself a disservice by accepting $200,000 from Philip Morris, but I agree for a very different and very ironic reason.

When I read the news on March 3 [“Slavery museum getting big gift”], I wondered why the museum had accepted such a small gift from a company that has its roots in the product that was the mainstay of the area in Colonial times.

Just as it took a lot of years and effort to even propose a museum to mark this eventful era in American history, so it will take effort and understanding to accept the history that is portrayed.

Slavery flourished in Virginia, in part because of the lucrative industry, free labor, and vast profits made from tobacco. So it is only just that a major company with vast tobacco profits support a slavery museum.

Philip Morris and other tobacco companies should make a much larger donation to this museum.

I couldn’t agree more. Philip Morris should receive some credit for donating to the USNSM, but how much? A quick Internet search reveals that Altria (PM’s parent company) had $70.3 billion in revenue for 2006. Duncan’s point is valid. The tobacco industry, like much of this nation, was built on the backs of slaves. One would hope they could donate a bit more than 0.0002%.

I think it’s unfair to ask the Museum to turn down $200,000. “Tainted” or not, that money will go a long way toward achieving the Museum’s ultimate goal, which is to tell the “complete story” of slavery. But certainly more can be done. I personally would like to see a long-term relationship between Philip Morris (and other tobacco companies) and the Museum, acknowledging the role of slavery in building the tobacco industry and building a sort of trust for the museum to provide those types of exhibits.


1 Response to “A Tobacco Row”

  1. 1 Jim
    June 29, 2007 at 8:13 am

    I wish Civil War and slavery museums would be located in more equitable places rather than Richmond and Fredericksburg since responsibility would be shared among North and South. And why should tobacco be a better funder of this museum than say Newport, RI, a most active point in slavery’s triangle of trade? All I can guess is that the South wanted these museums in the hopes of garnering tourist dollars. And I really hope the museum shows the North’s complicity in slavery rather than presenting it as a strictly southern phenomena. Similarly, I hope it shows the somplicity of most of the deveoloped world as slavery made profits for Portugal, Spain, England, Dutch, select Africans, etc. I’ll be watching so closely.

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