Photos by Ruta Smith

More than a Building

 Not far from where the International African American Museum is rising along the Charleston waterfront, Septima Clark rallied workers and Esau Jenkins started a credit union. Mother Emanuel sits nearby, rooted in uprising. Charleston hospital workers protested unfair conditions in the 1960s down the street. Enslaved Africans hauled ill-gotten cash crops steps from where they themselves were bought and sold along downtown docks. Yes, the International African American Museum (IAAM) sits at 14 Wharfside St. in Charleston, but its stories lie far beyond its walls.

“The stories are hemispheric, they’re Atlantic and they are indeed global,” College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers said at the museum’s October 2019 groundbreaking. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn insisted the museum must tell the rich histories of Americans of African descent. “It has to be about what African Americans are and can be and will be,” he said.

The museum is the fruit of a more-than-20-year effort by local leaders — including Clyburn, former Mayor Joe Riley and others — to memorialize Charleston’s place at the center of African-American cultural history in the U.S. Nearly $100 million was raised from private benefactors and blue chip corporations ahead of the museum’s construction, which is expected to be nearing completion by this time next year.


Millicent Brown
Retired educator, community activist

How can the IAAM balance being a museum and a tourist attraction?

“There are enough truth-seekers that will come to this museum to learn the truth, and we don’t have to be afraid of offending. If we’re afraid to tell these uncomfortable truths, then we never intended to do anything that was transformative … If you call upon the uniqueness of Charleston, then don’t skirt it and say, ‘OK, people came here, and then this is the part of the story we want to tell you.’”

A platform for disruption
Tonya Matthews was named on April 10 as the museum’s new CEO. With a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University, as well as museum and education experience (plus a talent for spoken-word poetry), Matthews said the IAAM will be an institution as powerful as the history it commemorates.

Tonya Matthews

“This is an incredible museum that is destined to be much more than a building,” Matthews told the City Paper. “It is a platform for disrupting institutionalized racism on a global scale, with the power of the stories we tell, and the authenticity that we tell them with. And frankly, Charleston is home to some of the most powerful stories in the world.”

Beyond the legacy of Gadsden’s Wharf as a landing site for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Matthews said modern histories of those who call Charleston home will be important to the museum’s ongoing work.

“Charleston has also been on the front lines of some of those earliest fights for equity and equality of Black people in America. And of course, those people are still here, still alive — long and storied histories and families that can tell the stories of that resilience, of that moving forward. And, even some of our stories of allyship are rooted here in Charleston.”

Critical in this time
Even 50+ years removed from the civil rights movement, the IAAM’s exhibits and programming are being curated as America continues confronting its racist past and how it persists into the present day.


La’Sheia Oubré
Retired educator, Member of Anson Street African Burial Ground Project

What is lost if the museum exhibits center on enslavement?

“What’s lost is: Through adversity, there’s strength. I teach my own children, you know the picture of the African-American gentleman, and the whippings across his back? His whole back is ripped from the whippings. When kids see it, they go, ‘I don’t want to see it! I don’t want to see it!’ I say, ‘No, look at it … He is telling us, I’m here for you and I need you to carry on … Make sure that you survive. Make sure that you prosper, make sure you take care of each other.’”

“The museum would have been important in any time, but I think that it is critical in this time,” Matthews said. “In many ways, because we are charged with this conversation that America has gotten [itself] into — some may say ‘accidentally,’ some may say ‘finally.’ But, our mission is actually around adding history and context to the conversations that we’re having right now around racial injustice, social inequity. Those issues did not come to us overnight.”

Built in a modern-looking building next to the Maritime Center, the main museum space will sit elevated above an open-air park and garden space that will be accessible to the public and include features marking the importance of the site. Upstairs, museum galleries will be split between permanent and rotating exhibitions, the details of which are still being determined.

Local connection
Surrounded by historic Charleston, but situated alongside the South Carolina Aquarium and the Fort Sumter National Monument buildings, Matthews is also looking for ways the IAAM can collaborate with local leaders and institutions inside the museum’s four walls.


Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Historian, author, TV host

Gates visited virtually last month with former Mayor Joe Riley’s class on the creation of the IAAM at The Citadel to discuss the importance of Charleston and South Carolina in the context of the museum. Here’s an excerpt from his remarks:

“According to the last estimate that I looked at, 48% of all of our African ancestors came to the United States through the port of Charleston. That’s amazing. So metaphorically, Charleston is our Ellis Island. That’s incredible … The second reason [the museum should be here] is because Charleston was ground zero for reconstruction.”

“South Carolina is a very complicated place … I want that complex story to be told.”

“We’re going to be a physically larger institution that gets a lot of attention,” Matthews said. “How can we use our size and our attention in service of our smaller sister and brother museums?”

“Does that look like us being able to bring the national figures, national historians, to the Lowcountry and put them on the same stage as our home griots who have lived the stories, and put them together in that same space?” Matthews asked, using a West African term for historian-storytellers.

Ultimately, Matthews said she wants the IAAM to be a place where the harsh realities and radical resilience of the African American people can be explored under one roof, as intimidating a task as that is.

“I think, for me, I need two impacts …  An arguably uncomfortable reckoning … an informed reckoning on the one hand, and an inspiration to rise to the challenge on the other,” she said.

“I want them to leave with some of the heaviness,” Matthews said. “But, I also want them to leave with some of the inspiration that has allowed people to, to not just survive but to thrive through these experiences.”


Vernita Brown
IAAM board member, CEO of Natalist

Why is the IAAM important right now?

“I think the museum is another tool for people doing their self-work and really learning. I think it’s all the more relevant, all the more urgent as we see these [social injustices], time and time again. And, it can feel defeating and overwhelming … I think that the museum is really a symbol of … standing in the face of adversity and saying, ‘You’re not going to win.’”

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