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Greenville Business Magazine

Corporate Support Helped Illuminate International African American Museum’s Mission

Jul 10, 2023 12:08PM ● By David Dykes

The International African American Museum in Charleston is located at one of the most important historical sites in American history, the former Gadsden’s Wharf, the point of disembarkation for nearly half of all enslaved Africans.

The museum seeks to honor the untold stories of the African American journey by educating visitors about the realities of the international slave trade and plantation life.

The IAAM also explores the cultures and knowledge systems retained and adapted by Africans in the Americas that have been influential across South Carolina, the United States, and the African diaspora.

It is a powerful reminder of the often-overlooked history of African Americans in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, and a commitment to move the dial on equity and racial justice.

Simply put, the museum is a must-see.

Our Integrated Media Publishing team has been there, and as Associate Editor Donna Isbell Walker writes in this issue, IAAM’s architect, the late Henry N. Cobb, considered the site “hallowed ground.”

She writes that the histories of Charleston and the North American slave trade are inextricably woven together, and those threads are visible from the moment a visitor steps foot onto the IAAM campus.

It’s no surprise many corporations, businesses and entities have rallied with financial contributions to support the museum and our greater civic well-being.

The Lilly Endowment made a $10 million lead grant to the museum in 2017 to help the IAAM build its capacity to incorporate religion into its interpretations of American life and establish relationships with and develop programs for churches and other faith-based organizations.

According to the IAAM, other sizable donations have come from Mellon Foundation, which topped $2 million in grants in April; Boeing ($2 million as of last August); the New York Life Foundation ($1 million as of May); and Bank of America (more than $1 million).

But it doesn’t stop there.

TD Community Development Corporation (TDCDC), a wholly owned subsidiary of TD Bank, N.A., announced in 2020 its allocation of New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC) to the IAAM to assist in its construction project and opening. The substantial allocation results in an equity investment of more than $5.5 million.

Michael Cooper, president of the New Markets Tax Credit program for TD Community Development Corp., said several areas jumped out for the museum to be considered, including its educational component, social impact and the broader advocacy museum officials will lead nationwide. 

He said the museum will illuminate Charleston’s role in the international slave trade and connect visitors to the past.

But he said there’s a broader narrative, the story about how enslaved Americans and those who were eventually freed helped shape the broader economic, political and, to some extent, cultural development of the nation.   

“These are not light topics,” Cooper said. “These are not topics that you just embed in a community benefits agreement and tuck it away. These are challenging conversations. But they’re good conversations to have.”

IAAM also received a $250,000 grant from TD Bank to sponsor the TD Bank Program Series, which will include nine large program events to be held at the museum and online. That donation builds on the TD Charitable Foundation’s 2016 donation of $250,000 to support the Center for Family History.

“The TD Bank Program Series will help to elevate the amazing works and untold stories of artists and individuals and drive important conversations around social justice, diversity, and more,” said Shelley Sylva, head of U.S. Corporate Citizenship at TD Bank.

She added much of the museum’s appeal comes from its focus on authentic African American cultural arts and storytelling. “And what better place to do that than in Charleston,” Sylva said.

The museum’s permanent exhibitions feature more than 150 historical objects, more than 30 works of art, nearly 50 films and digital interactive experiences that bring history to life, framed by a gateway to the Atlantic Ocean.

You can explore the diverse cultures of West and West Central Africa and trace the movement of people of African descent throughout the Atlantic World, and discover people, events, and stories that shaped United States history through the international lens of the African diaspora.

Additionally, you can explore the nuanced historical connections throughout the Black Atlantic World and the deep interconnectivity between Africa, the Americas, and Europe and understand the transformative impact of enslaved people who labored on plantations in South Carolina and helped build the lucrative rice industry.

You also can define and demystify what it means to be Gullah Geechee by examining the history of the Gullah Geechee people and the contemporary issues facing their communities today, and experience stories of resistance and achievement from the many locally, nationally, and internationally influential African Americans in South Carolina’s history.

The Carolina Gold Gallery, which includes both the Carolina Gold Exhibit and the Memories of the Enslaved Exhibit, offers a look at the transformative impact of enslaved people whose labor shaped and built the lucrative rice industry. Carolina Gold, a variety of African rice, was a staple in South Carolina until the late 1920s.

The exhibit not only examines the root of the plantation systems, but it also acknowledges the ingenuity that Africans, from the western region, brought to this nation. Through perseverance and resistance, African Americans were able to engineer community and shape the geography and economy in the Lowcountry.

The gallery examines the brutality of chattel slavery by using the experiences of these people while demonstrating the idea of turning exploitation to triumph. A notable object illustrative of that time is “Ashley’s Sack,” which is on loan to IAAM from the Middleton Foundation.

Ashley’s story is that of a 9-year-old enslaved girl who was sold in Charleston in the mid-1800s and then separated from her mother, Rose. Knowing the separation was coming, Ashley’s mother gave her a cotton sack filled with a tattered dress, pecans, and a braid of Rose’s hair.

Although she never saw Ashley again, the sack would later become an intergenerational connection to Rose’s descendants when it was handed down to Ruth Middleton, Ashley’s granddaughter. In 1921, Ruth embroidered her story on the sack, and it has come to be known as “Ashley’s Sack”.

That display is absorbing, fascinating, and riveting.

The IAAM also announced earlier this year that South Carolina Congressman James E. Clyburn, the first chair of the IAAM board and a long-term museum supporter, will be honored in the Carolina Gold Gallery, which will bear his name.

“My hope,” said Clyburn, “is that those who visit will leave with a more complete understanding of African American and American history.”