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Greenville Business Magazine

The International African American Museum

By Tammy Joyner

Rendering provided by the IAAM

More than 40 percent of enslaved Africans who arrived in North America during the transatlantic slave trade came through Charleston Harbor in South Carolina.

By the time the legalized importation of Africans to the New World ended in 1808, some 100,000 Africans had been taken from Angola, Senegambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and present-day Cameroon as well as other parts of west Africa. They were nameless, faceless souls lost to history, but their legacy and journey are not. 

That brutal but critical period in American history will be immortalized in a two-story, 42,000- square-foot museum that will span Charleston’s waterfront at a historical landmark known as Gadsden’s Wharf. The wharf is on the east side of the Charleston peninsula, along the Cooper River waterfront.

“Our mission is to honor the African American journey at one of our nation’s most sacred sites,” said Elijah Heyward III, the museum’s chief operating officer. “Charleston is a point of entry but Gadsden’s Wharf has a special point as far as being that entry point. Gadsden’s Wharf was where African captives were sold and many took their first steps in America.”

The $92 million International African American Museum is slated to open in 2022, the culmination of years of collaborative civic, corporate and community effort.

“Over the last several years, we have joined cities across the nation in the arduous process of reckoning with a complicated, and at times downright inhumane, history,” said Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg. “As we continue taking steps toward racial justice and conciliation, it’s more important than ever that our city’s true and full history is being told, and the International African American Museum will play a critical role in that effort.”

Museum planners say IAAM will go a long way in helping to address much of the nation’s social and racial division. On June 17, 2015, nine African Americans were killed by a white supremacist during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic civil rights landmark in Charleston.

“It will be an important place of pride for the African American community,” Heyward said. “It will spur economic growth for the city and region and change the landscape of tourism in Charleston.”

Bringing this museum to life is not without its challenges and critics. The pandemic, for instance, is the biggest concern right now. 

“Our commitment is to the safety of the construction team,” Heyward said. “The museum’s team and all of our partners are to ensure everyone remains healthy and safe and adjusting to the new virtual workplace.”

The pandemic has led to remote planning for the museum.

That planning has drawn concern from those who are working to make sure the museum does not focus heavily on slavery.

While Charleston played a major role in the transatlantic slave trade, critics like Citizens Want Excellence at IAAM want to make sure the museum also includes achievements before and after slavery. The museum, they say, should feature achievements of African kingdoms as well as the post-slavery contributions of African Americans.

“They seem to have forgotten where they are and what this thing is supposed to be about,” Gwen Robinson, a Mount Pleasant-based attorney and a member of Citizens Want Excellence, told the Charleston Post and Courier.

Heyward called the criticism an “unfair appraisal” of the museum. The museum has hosted community listening sessions to try to get suggestions and recommendations from residents about what they want to see in the museum. The museum hired Brenda Tindal as director of education and engagement and DeMett Jenkins is the museum’s faith-based director, Heyward said.

“Our exhibit begins before slavery. They start with the story of Africa and there will be so much more,” Heyward noted. “We definitely honor our ancestors and what they endured but we also honor so much of what has happened beyond slavery in a meaningful and thoughtful way.”

The International African American Museum At A Glance

Location: Along Charleston’s waterfront, once a major entry for the transatlantic slave trade on the the former Gadsden’s Wharf site.

Size: Two stories, with 42,000 square feet of museum space. The first floor includes 40,000 square feet of exhibit space. The top floor, which will be a fraction of the size of the first floor, will be for offices. The complex also will include a genealogy research center and an African  Ancestor Memorial garden, designed by MacArthur Genius award recipient Walter Hood, an African American landscape architect.

Cost: $92 million

Interesting artifacts slated to be in the museum: Pottery by Dave the Potter; a replica of a Praise House, which was a place of worship that is germane to the Gullah Geechee culture; and a Gullah Geechee Gallery.

Groundbreaking: Oct. 25, 2019

Slated to open: 2022