The Southern port city of Charleston is widely regarded for its dynamic mix of old and new, blending centuries-old Colonial, Georgian and Victorian architecture with an innovative culinary and cultural scene that’s decidedly modern. It’s this juxtaposition that tends to draw visitors to the charming city year round—but there’s much more to Charleston and its significant history than these readily apparent influences. The city is, in fact, one of the earliest settlements in which the presence of enslaved Africans in North America first began. And today, Charleston still has many such untold stories left to reveal.
Throughout Colonial American history, it’s undeniable that African Americans played a pivotal role in creating wealth for land owners, with Charleston owing much of its foundational success to those who were once enslaved there. Over time, these African Americans were able to push toward a position of power, demanding universal freedoms and the rights of citizenship throughout the course of various movements, from the American Revolution to the Civil War, and from the Emancipation to its immediate aftermath in the Reconstruction Era.
The formerly enslaved continued to work together in the face of Jim Crow segregation, and they remained united throughout the modern Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. But it wasn’t until 2018 that Charleston ultimately passed a resolution denouncing slavery, and acknowledging that the city had profited from the labor of enslaved Africans. And this was no small number. In truth, according to Harvard professor and historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., more than 48 percent of all enslaved Africans once entered the country by way of Charleston.
“48.1% of all the African slaves who came to the United States entered this country through Charleston,” explains Gates. “So, for blackness, black culture, the African experience, the African American experience, slavery—however you want to slice it—this is ground zero. I think it’s very important that a great city in the South be the home of a great museum celebrating the achievements, the history, and the culture of persons of African descent.”
While the damage of enslavement will never be erased, Americans of every background and heritage have the opportunity to recognize the past, and to support the retention of African cultural expression today. In Charleston, there are myriad ways to do just that. In particular, visitors can learn about its unique African American historical and cultural traditions, both past and present, through a variety of tours. From explorations of the city on foot, to day tours of the sea islands and various plantations, it’s possible to experience oral histories, exhibitions, archives, statues, music and more—each delving into centuries of African American history.
And soon, visitors to Charleston will have another rich and unparalleled way to learn about African American history in the Southern city and beyond, thanks to the opening of the long-awaited International African American Museum (IAAM) on January 21, 2023. Designed to highlight the culture and knowledge systems of Africans in the Americas, and their diverse journeys and achievements in South Carolina and the larger African Diaspora, the museum will uncover deeper and as-yet-untold stories of Charleston’s African American history.
The International African American Museum
Designed to occupy an expansive 150,000 square feet of exhibition, learning and interpretive space, the new IAAM will launch with nine featured galleries and exhibits that bridge the early African origins and diasporic connections in Charleston and the South, with centuries of subsequent African American economic, creative and social contributions to the United States.
At the core of its mission, the museum will take an unvarnished look at slavery and enslaved people’s fight for human dignity—first in Charleston, but also expanding outward to the larger American South. And with such a historically significant purpose, the museum was also constructed with great deference to its location; in fact, the IAAM is sited at what was once Gadsden’s Wharf on the Cooper River—the port of arrival for nearly half of all enslaved Africans brought to North America.
“Our journey has been long because it took time to secure the optimal site,” former Mayor of Charleston, Joseph P. Riley, Jr. explains. “[It is] a site that is called ‘sacred’ because it is precisely where so many enslaved Africans arrived in our country, and many died here. It took time to raise the resources, assemble the team, and plan every detail that would enhance the experience of being here. And it took time because we have been committed to excellence.”
Honoring this site is central to the museum’s story, and various architectural details help tell the story of what once took place at this very same location overlooking Charleston Harbor. The central building’s iconic silhouette was designed by architect Henry Cobb of renowned firm, PEI Cobb Freed & Partners, and the design intentionally leaves space on the ground floor to help preserve “the collective memory” of all that once occurred here.
Touring the Museum
The most significant part of the museum is certainly its historical location, but an abundance of cultural artifacts await all around. At the entrance, stairs lead up to a skylit atrium that stands 18 feet above the ground. The stairs up to the main level were designed with multiple uses in mind, serving not only as the means of entering the museum, but also meant to be seating—an outdoor amphitheater of sorts—for guest speakers and performances throughout the year.
On the museum’s main level, large window panels allow visitors to gaze out both sides of the building and observe the natural surroundings of Charleston. The views from the window also serve as a visual primer for American history, with various historic sites readily visible, nudging visitors to feel the gravity of the location. Fort Sumter is nearby, as is Sullivan’s Island—once used for quarantine—along the waterway that slave ships once used to enter the protected waters of the wharf.
The main exhibition space sits 13 feet above ground on a double row of cylindrical columns. Beneath, a shallow reflecting pool stands in quiet tribute to what was once the edge of Gadsden’s Wharf, now a place of quiet contemplation that honors the legacy of the African journey. And nearby, a 245-foot steel band is inscribed with names of the many regions from which enslaved people were brought over.
“I am proud to have worked with our incredible team to get this museum to opening day,” Dr. Tonya Matthews, president and CEO of the International African American Museum, explains. “This museum will be a must-see space of courageous curiosity and authentic engagement with our nation’s history—with African American history.”
For first-time visitors, the Orientation Theater is an excellent place to start the experience. A thoughtfully produced short film plays on a loop every 8 to 10 minutes, providing a sense of connection and context to the stories contained within the museum.
From there, various exhibitions will take visitors on a visual and emotional tour. The South Carolina exhibit features stories of enslaved African Americans who have contributed to history, from influencing education, faith, and social justice throughout the centuries. A collection of floor-to-ceiling screens will help to expand the stories and information about various exhibits and objects, and to highlight the impact of Charleston in the African diaspora. And with an eye on the museum’s potential impact, there’s even a digital table in partnership with Google to engage visitors outside of the museum.
Center for Family History
Unique to the IAAM is its Center for Family History, a one-of-a-kind research center with a special focus on African American genealogy. Designed to serve as a groundbreaking resource for the study and advancement of such tracing of historical lineage, its staff will be on site to provide guidance to novice and advanced genealogists alike.
Inside, visitors can learn more about theoretical African American family histories—and their own—using the center’s unique collection of primary sources, documents and texts. The Center will also offer workshops and educational programming throughout the year to encourage the natural curiosity and investigative practices that can help us all to bring our pasts into focus.
African Ancestors Memorial Garden
On the ground level of the museum, the African Ancestors Memorial Garden will highlight the harbor’s original shoreline—the precise spot where so many captive Africans first set foot on American soil, whether they were to stay in Charleston or be enslaved in the greater South.
Here, the pavilion features a garden within a garden, a design that incorporates art installations, live plantings, and the centerpiece infinity pool. This place for quiet contemplation was conceived by architect Walter Hood, himself a 2019 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” recipient. And in its stillness, it will soon be the future home to performances and museum programs that help tell the many important stories within the IAAM each year.
“Committed reckoning with history is a necessary stop on the road to healing and reconciliation,” explains Dr. Matthews of the IAAM. “Charleston is a port city, a global city, a historic city—and there is no better place for our museum to steward these stories that have such national and international significance and impact.”
Exploring African American History & Culture in Charleston
The grand opening of the International African American Museum will certainly bring new and far-reaching ways of retelling African American history in Charleston and beyond. But there are many more ways to experience African history and culture in the city.
On James Island, visitors can explore the McLeod Plantation Historic Site, a 37-acre Gullah heritage site that was once built and enriched on the cultivation of sea island cotton—an undertaking that was only possible because of the back-breaking work of enslaved people. Visitors can tour the home and verdant grounds of the estate, and learn about the daily lives of the occupants that once lived here—both the owners of the land, and the enslaved.
The College of Charleston Libraries are another excellent resource for information about the city’s heritage and history, particularly the Marlene & Nathan Addlestone, which is widely considered to be the region’s top research library. Nearby, the Historic Charleston City Market dates to the 1790s and spans four city blocks from Market Hall. As one of the nation’s oldest public markets, visitors can experience the site where so many goods would have been sold at the hands and hard work of enslaved Africans in the region.
And at the Aiken-Rhett House, a well-preserved 1820s estate home just north of the city, affords a unique way to experience what life in antebellum Charleston would have been like. In fact, it’s among the few residences in the city (and in the greater South) where its original slave quarters still remain, giving visitors the chance to walk through history and truly understand the harsh conditions that formed the backdrop in our collective past.
While there are already so many ways to explore African history and culture in Charleston, the new IAAM opening will bring a fresh and sweeping perspective to this significant part of the city’s foundational past. Stay apprised of the grand opening exhibits, upcoming speakers and more on the museum’s website, where you can also sign up to become a member or donate toward the museum’s opening events. You could be among the first to visit when it opens on January 21, 2023, and experience historic Charleston like you’ve never seen it before.