Charleston’s International African American Museum Offers New Look at HistoryJul 10, 2023 04:36PM ● By Donna Isbell Walker
The International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston sits atop rounded pillars that keep the structure itself from touching the ground at Gadsden’s Wharf.
There’s a reason for that – IAAM’s architect, the late Henry N. Cobb, considered the site “hallowed ground” because it was the entry point for the untold thousands of Africans who were brought to South Carolina as slaves, many of whom died there soon after arrival.
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.
A reflective black marble wall features a poem by Maya Angelou that concludes, “I rise, I rise, I rise,” and is flanked by abstract kneeling figures sculpted from concrete.
Nearby, a brick outline traces the dimensions of the storage house where enslaved individuals were kept before being sold at auction. The conditions there were primitive, and many men, women, and children did not survive that house.
A fountain facing the wharf contains outlines of human figures caught between the ports of departure from Africa and the North and South American ports of arrival, the water rising and falling with the tides.
Charleston is a crucial part of the American experience with slavery because approximately half of the African people brought here as slaves came through the Lowcountry. The museum, which opened to the public in late June, is the second-largest African American museum in the country, behind the Smithsonian, said Tonya M. Matthews, Ph.D., the museum’s president and CEO.
While the IAAM offers the chance for visitors to see artifacts from across the world, the museum experience seeks to do more than showcase centuries-old items. The experience offers the African diaspora as a foundation for exploring the wider world, from pre-history to the present.
The fountain helps to set the scene, but the museum’s interior brings to life a multitude of stories that flow out from a common source.
The tour begins with an 18-minute film about the Transatlantic experience, which blends still photographs and video images to “give you a sense of all of the themes in the museum,” Matthews. “It will run all the way from, say, Timbuktu, ancient civilizations (and) it will come up to the period of slavery, and it keeps on going.”
The international component is evident from this first moment of entry, carrying visitors through the displays, from an exhibit about the first recorded instance of human rice cultivation thousands of years ago, to a 14th-century carved headpiece from the Yoruba region of what is now Nigeria, to modern-day sweetgrass baskets woven in South Carolina.
“You run through all of the emotions” in that introductory film, “and that’s what this space is for, to give you a hint of everything that you’re going to see,” Matthews said.
There is a gallery paying tribute to the Gullah and Geechee culture centered in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, and another one called “African Roots and Routes,” which traces the many paths that individuals of African descent have taken throughout the world, and the lasting impressions that their cultures made on the world at large.
Another area of the museum lays out the stark human cost of the slave trade, illuminating the lives lost on slave ship voyages to the Americas, the estimated number of individuals who passed through Charleston, and many of the African people whose names were changed after they were purchased by slave owners.
One wall lists names and ages of people such as Oobah, age 16; Manmoque, age 21; and Kiabree, age 18, who arrived on slave ships. Another wall spotlights individual names taken from slave records of plantations, people with names such as Jack, Bella, Hagar, and Old Venus.
According to the museum, more than 150,000 people from Africa arrived in the Charleston area between 1710 and 1808, on voyages that averaged 63 days.
In addition to the artifacts, films, and historical elements, the museum is home to a genealogy research center, the Center for Family History. Researchers are on staff to help visitors trace their ancestry, through connections to some of the world’s largest genealogy databases, Matthews said.
The museum’s blend of themes and artifacts showcases the vast range of emotions key to the history of African Americans across the centuries.
“It’s interesting the way human emotions work. There are certain things, I think, that are more visceral than others,” Matthews said, comparing small personal items that belonged to individual enslaved people with the large numbers associated with the slave trade.
The stories that are told at IAAM are large in scale – the international slave trade – but there are smaller stories, too, illuminating moments in the lives of the individuals who spent their lives in the shackles of slavery, and of the people who made history in the nearly 160 years since the Emancipation Proclamation declared the end of slavery.
“The idea is to spark curiosity, spark inspiration,” hoping that visitors leave the museum with questions that can be answered by more research and reading, Matthews said.
Matthews said she isn’t trying to evoke one particular feeling for visitors, but rather the spectrum of emotions threaded through African American history and the experiences of individual African Americans through the generations.
“The greatest gift of the African American journey is its ability to teach the way that we simultaneously hold the sensations of trauma and joy,” she said. “Not trauma on Tuesday and joy on Thursday; it’s all kind of woven up in there together, and we’ve been really intentional about the way that we tell the story.”
The museum has been in the works for more than 20 years – since then-Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. proposed in 2000 that the city of Charleston create a museum dedicated to telling the stories of African American experiences.
But the road to getting the museum from idea to reality has been hampered by a few bumps, including decisions about where to locate the museum, and more recently, a problem with the humidity-control system that led to a several-month delay.
The process began with a simple premise: convincing people that the museum was needed, said Wilbur Johnson, chair of the IAAM board of directors.
Speaking at the Building OneSouthCarolina Forum in May, where the museum received the 2023 OneSouthCarolina Partners in Progress Award from the Riley Institute, Johnson said, “The first obstacle is having people understand that it’s possible and that there’s a reason for its existence.”
Johnson credited Riley with helping to create and deliver the message that Charleston should have a museum dedicated to the African American experience through the centuries. Then, Johnson said, “that made fundraising possible.”
The eagerness of individuals and corporations to contribute smoothed the process in many ways, and some of the challenges the IAAM faced allowed it to fine-tune its focus, Matthews said.
“If we had opened at any other time, we would have been a different museum. We started out as a museum that was really going to help the community learn just about slavery, and just about slavery in Charleston. And then you get five, 10 years, you get some more people in the room, and they’re like, ‘No, we need to tell a bigger picture. … Let’s go back to the origin.’”
Each delay allowed museum officials to reconsider the story they wanted to tell.
And Matthews’ hope is that the museum will engage not just the people whose ancestors may have passed through Gadsden’s Wharf 250 years ago, but all members of the community.
IAAM has about 49,000 charter members, 70 percent of whom live outside of South Carolina.
While museum officials expected a bit of negative response from the community, “that’s not what we’ve seen,” Matthews said.
Instead, individuals have expressed interest in learning more about South Carolina’s history, both positive and negative.
“It’s not about generating shame; it’s about claiming the courage that we’re showing in telling these stories,” she said.
The story of the African American experience continues to evolve, but the IAAM’s mission to never forget the history is starkly evident on that marble wall that visitors see before entering the building.
The wall is inscribed with an 1807 quote from Charleston traveler John Lambert, who said of the Africans who were brought to the Lowcountry on slave ships: “These poor beings were obliged to be kept on board the ships, or in large buildings at Gadsden’s Wharf, for months together… Their clothing was very scanty, and some unusually sharp weather during the winter carried off great numbers of them. Upwards of seven hundred of them died in less than three months.”