On Friday, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Union University will host the Wilder Symposium on “Race and American Society.”
The event will be held at the Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace. St., from 9 a.m. until 3:15 p.m. Three sessions are scheduled: “Race and the Criminal Justice System”; “Race and Public Opinion”; and “Race and Media.” Each session will feature panelists. A full schedule is available here. The symposium is free and open to the public.
Ahead of Friday’s event, we caught up with the former Virginia Governor and Richmond mayor to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, his plans for a national slavery museum, and the city’s 2016 mayoral race.
The following is an edited transcript.
Richmond magazine: What’s the biggest obstacle to having an honest discussion about race in Richmond?
Douglas Wilder: Not just in Richmond, anywhere! When have you seen any discussion of race? You didn’t see it in the debates with the Democrats or with the Republicans. It is never ever discussed. Quite frankly, there has been no education of race in our school systems. There has been nothing to require an understanding of history and slavery. So how would anyone know? What we’re speaking of in this seminar is not an issue of blame, it’s an issue of education, of awareness, and prompting people to understand that it is absolutely important and necessary that if they’re going to understand America, they’re going to have to understand race and discuss how race impacts many things that we do related to housing, to health, to our criminal justice system. You can’t avoid it.
RM: The symposium will touch on race and the criminal justice system and media. Both institutions have been challenged by the Black Lives Matter movement in the last year and a half. How do you view that movement?
DW: I think it’s in its infancy. Obviously, we need more of what I would call direction. I’ve said earlier, when it first came out, that I’d like to add one word to it: either ‘too’ or ‘also.’ I know that’s the intent, but many times, people look at what is actually printed and take from that whatever criticisms they want to make.
RM: You wrote in your book, "Son of Virginia," that your quest to build a national slavery museum was not a personal crusade but a national necessity. Why have you settled on a museum instead of some other kind of commemorative memorial?
DW: Well the museum I envision will be a teaching museum. It’s not just to have artifacts and displays. There’s no single African-American museum that I know of that’s doing what I’m speaking of. We want to have seminars. We want to have opportunities for professors to do sabbaticals and do studies. A museum is not a relic place. It’s a place for education – for students to come and learn and teachers to come and teach.
RM: Do you see your plan as fitting with or competing against the city’s ongoing effort to memorialize the Lumpkin’s Jail Site in Shockoe Bottom?
DW: I was asked by the city to come to meet with them ... that was when they had the plans for a stadium in Shockoe Bottom. I met with [Mayor Dwight] Jones, met with his chief of staff, David Hicks, several times. We met with governor [Bob McDonnell] several times and the governor made it as clear as he could make it: ‘I’m interested in doing what Doug Wilder has said he’s interested in relative to slavery museum. I want to see a slave trail. I have no interest at all in baseball, so if you want some money for a baseball stadium, you’ve got the wrong man.’ It’s not a matter of competing. The governor made it clear.
RM: Next year, the city will vote on its third popularly elected mayor, a system you were instrumental in putting in place. What do you think the city needs in its next mayor?
DW: Leadership. Leadership. Leadership.
RM: That’s all?
DW: I think that would do it.