A Museum Exploring the African American Experience Is Coming to Charleston

Slated to open early next year, the space will explore the legacy and contributions of enslaved people and their descendants

Rendering of the International African American Museum
Rendering of the International African American Museum Pei Cobb Freed

With its bucolic Georgian mansions and charming cobblestone streets, Charleston’s darker history—particularly its role in the transatlantic slave trade—is easy for visitors to overlook. But as discussions about race and systemic injustice take place across the country, the South Carolina city’s shameful past is finally coming to the fore.

An estimated 40 percent of all enslaved people transported to the United States during the transatlantic slave trade arrived in the country via Charleston—many of them through Gadsden’s Wharf.

“Fifteen years ago, Charlestonians did not know what Gadsden’s Wharf was,” Reverend Eric S.C. Manning, the pastor at Charleston’s historic Mother Emanuel AME Church, tells Town and Country’s Klara Glowczewska. “Now everyone embraces that story.”

As part of this cultural shift, a museum detailing the horrors of the slave trade and the resilience of enslaved people is slated to open at the former site of the wharf. The 150,000-square-foot International African American Museum will welcome its first visitors the weekend of January 21, 2023. Per CNN’s Devon M. Sayers, the space will feature nine exhibition galleries and a memorial garden.

These galleries will tell the stories of the African American experience across generations, from the first enslaved people who arrived in Charleston to the journeys and achievements of their descendants in South Carolina and the U.S., as well as the broader African Diaspora, according to the museum’s website.

The window-laden museum building itself stands on a series of 13-foot-tall pillars. The site’s late architect, Henry N. Cobb, described it as “a purposefully unrhetorical work of architecture, quietly affirming the power of place.”

Designed by landscape architect and MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” winner Walter Hood, the memorial garden will feature an infinity fountain, a soundscape of African languages, smaller botanical gardens and art installations. A 245-foot steel band near the edge of the wharf will identify the regions where enslaved people brought to Charleston lived before they were kidnapped by slave traders, writes Jasmine Liu for Hyperallergic.

The museum will offer educational, public and faith-based programming, as well as a Center for Family History that aims to help both novice and expert researchers explore African American genealogy. Though the center itself won’t open until next January, an array of resources are already available on its website, which Family Tree magazine named one of the best African American genealogy sites in both 2021 and 2022.

First proposed by former Charleston mayor Joseph P. Riley in 2000, the museum has been more than two decades in the making. Per CNN, fundraising and securing the site slowed the process; according to the Post and Courier’s Adam Parker, staffing and management issues created further delays and sparked concerns over how the museum would achieve its mission of representing the African American experience. At the time of its groundbreaking in 2019, the museum had raised more than $100 million in public and private donations.

Built by enslaved laborers, the 840-foot Gadsden’s Wharf was the largest in North America at the time of its completion in 1772, capable of accommodating six ships at once. An estimated 100,000 enslaved people arrived in the country via the wharf between 1783 and 1808, according to the Green Book of South Carolina.

In 1860, 10 percent of all enslaved people in the U.S. lived in South Carolina (400,000 in all), accounting for 57 percent of the state’s population. Charleston was the unofficial capital of the national slave trade until its last market closed in 1863, wrote Brian Hicks for the Post and Courier in 2011.

In 2018, Charleston’s City Council voted to formally denounce slavery and apologize for the city’s role in the slave trade. The vote was held in Charleston’s City Hall—a building constructed by enslaved people.

Carl Borick, director of the Charleston Museum, tells Town and Country that “[t]here is hardly an artifact here—antiques, silver, ordinary objects—that wasn’t crafted, maintained, handled in some way by enslaved people.”

He adds, “The white elite here relied on the enslaved workforce to do pretty much everything. The churches, houses, grand public buildings? We wouldn’t have any of that without the work of enslaved and free Black [people].”

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