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Kelly Hannon Free Lance-Star
Published: 18 February 2011

Former National Slavery Museum Executive Director Vonita Foster

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) -- Therbia Parker Sr. looked forward to the day he would walk inside the finished U.S. National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg and see the artifacts he donated among the exhibits.

Parker, 62, and his wife, Marva, of Suffolk gave the museum leg and wrist shackles that once restrained slaves. They donated 19th-century newspaper articles and posters advertising slaves for sale. They handed over a first-edition ``Uncle Tom's Cabin'' by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Those were among 95 items the Parkers turned over to the museum in September 2004, acquisitions from years of visiting East Coast antiques stores. Parker estimates the collective value of the artifacts, if they chose to sell them, would be about $75,000.

A deed of gift from the National Slavery Museum outlines the terms of the donation. If the museum ceases to exist or fails to become a reality under stated conditions, the gift reverts to the Parkers.

As the years passed and their artifacts were kept out of public view, Parker grew concerned.

Early in 2010, with no museum under construction, he tried to contact the museum's leaders to learn where his donated items were being kept.

In a February 2010 e-mail to Parker, former National Slavery Museum Executive Director Vonita Foster said she had resigned her position, and was unaware of the status of the museum.

She referred Parker to the museum's founder and chairman of its board of directors, former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. She gave him Wilder's contact information at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he is an adjunct professor.

Parker said his attempts to reach Wilder by certified letter and phone in the past year were unsuccessful.

So when he saw news reports that the city of Fredericksburg was starting the process of selling the museum's 38-acre property in Celebrate, Va., to collect more than $147,000 in back taxes, unpaid since 2008, Parker decided to go public to find his collection.

``If they get their taxes back, I want my artifacts back,'' Parker said.

He said he's disappointed the museum has not come to fruition.

``Our hopes for the museum were heartfelt,'' the Parkers wrote in a March 4, 2010, letter to Wilder. ``The Black Memorabilia items in your possession were placed in your care in good faith.''

But to let a year pass without a response is unacceptable, Parker said.

Now he's just angry, he said.

``I haven't heard anything from them. Not a peep. Zilch. I've been totally ignored,'' he said.

An e-mail sent to Wilder's address at VCU this week inquiring about the Parkers' artifacts was not answered.

Wilder answered the phone at his VCU office this week, but after a Free Lance-Star reporter identified herself, he said he was speaking on another line.

The call was immediately transferred to a receptionist, who took a message.

Parker is not the only donor trying to have a gift returned if it won't be displayed in the museum.

Mae Tarver, 78, of Wadley, Ga., has been trying to reach museum officials about a piece of artwork her husband donated in 2008.

Willie Tarver, a Korean War veteran and retired mechanic known for creating concrete and metal folk art pieces, died of cancer in August. One of his pieces, ``Faces on the Wall,'' is on permanent display at an outdoor park in Atlanta built for the 1996 Olympics.

A friend of Tarver's who collected his artwork heard about the museum and its search for exhibit materials.

Tarver decided to give the museum a piece depicting an old slave market in Louisville, Ga.

``He said, 'This piece is one of my best pieces,''' Mae Tarver said. He was willing to donate it because he believed museum officials would take care of it, she said.

Tarver also kept documentation of the gift.

``We appreciate your interest and trust in the museum,'' Wilder wrote in a Feb. 19, 2008, letter to Willie Tarver. ``Your contribution is an asset to our collection.'' Foster, the museum's executive director at the time, also sent a thank-you letter that same month, saying Tarver would be invited to the museum opening.

``We kept waiting and waiting,'' Mae Tarver said.

If the museum cannot display the piece as planned, she would like it returned so she can decide what to do with it, she said in an interview last week.

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, associate professor of history at Norfolk State University, said the Parkers' donated pieces were part of an exhibit at the university several years ago, ``Legacies of Slave Images: The Therbia and Marva Parker Collection.''

In addition to the shackles, the couple shared a number of commercial pieces from the Jim Crow era, such as coffee tins, cookie jars and salt and pepper shakers portraying blacks with distorted, exaggerated features.

Newby-Alexander said she and others tried to discourage Parker from donating the pieces to the National Slavery Museum.

``None of us believed that Wilder was going to really do this museum, because the people he had leading the charge weren't experienced in working with museums,'' Newby-Alexander said.

But Parker was determined to share what he'd found with a wider audience, a sentiment she said she understands.

The reaction to the exhibit at Norfolk State was powerful, she said.

The shackles and collars collected by the couple are in good condition, which is rare for working farm materials, she said.

But students at Norfolk State had a strong response to seeing the commercial items. Several compared it to being slapped across the face, Newby-Alexander said.

Other museums would undoubtedly be interested in displaying the pieces to ``make sure that the next generation of people don't forget how vile this kind of image or these images were, and how they really hurt groups of people by playing to people's fear, by playing to their stereotypes,'' Newby-Alexander said.

She is disappointed the museum has failed to honor its contract.

``It shouldn't be a messy legal battle,'' she said.

Kym Rice, director of the museum studies program at George Washington University in Washington, said a deed of gift signed by the donor and museum ultimately determines whether artifacts can be returned.

Deeds of gift are ``fairly airtight,'' Rice said. ``Once the donor has signed off on a deed of a gift, the museum is the owner of the objects, and they really can't return them to the donor, and in many cases the donors have taken tax write-offs because of the gifts, so it's a complicated IRS issue, as well.''

It is rare for a museum to include a clause in the deed saying a donor can reclaim the gift, she said.

``That's so unusual,'' Rice said. ``No museum would typically do that.''

By including such a clause, the institution leaves itself open to questions about whether it is fulfilling the donor's wishes, Rice said.

Occasionally, museums are founded but do not survive in a difficult economy and go out of business, Rice said.

Since most deeds of gift do not contain a return clause, these museums generally keep donated items and transfer them to an appropriate venue, Rice said.

In the case of the National Slavery Museum, that could be the Virginia Historical Society or another museum about slavery, Rice said.

Such a transfer would need to be communicated to donors, she said. ``The museum has a legal obligation to be transparent and above-aboard,'' Rice said.

But since it appears there was a provision for the return of artifacts donated to the National Slavery Museum, that complicates the situation, Rice said. ``This sounds to me like a lawsuit in the making,'' she said.

Artifacts given to museums are often treasured family heirlooms, and donors care deeply about the destination of their gift, she said.

``Hopefully the objects are somewhere in a safe place and they're packed up and waiting,'' Rice said.

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