Former Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. at the International African American Museum's multimedia 'Transatlantic Experience' gallery. | Courtesy Joseph P. Riley Jr.

The idea of a Black history museum swirled in former Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.’s mind more than 20 years ago as he read the story of a wealthy plantation family who enslaved nearly 4,000 Africans in Berkeley County.

For two centuries, the Africans cultivated rice on 25 farms and plantations owned by the Ball family along the upper end of the Cooper River. It’s estimated that 100,000 descendants of those “Ball slaves” are scattered across the United States, including a family in North Charleston.

This shocking revelation gleaned from the Ball family plantation records and ancestral lore jumped from the pages as Riley read Edward Ball’s award-winning 1998 book, Slaves in the Family.

Ball’s account of his family’s role in plantation slavery “showed me the horror of the brutal ship crossing and the unspeakably harsh life that the survivors would face,” Riley told the Charleston City Paper. “It lit a fire in my mind. The book was so powerful that I decided we needed to build a museum to tell that story.”

In January 2000 at the start of Riley’s seventh term in office, he pledged that his long-term vision for the city would include a museum focused on African American history. A year after Riley pledged support for a museum, Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder announced plans for a national slavery museum in Fredericksburg. It was never built. Two decades later on June 27, however, in Charleston, an eager public will finally see the inside of the International African American Museum (IAAM) built along the Cooper River, 30 miles downstream from the Ball family rice fields.

In an email, Ball wrote: “I remember when Mayor Riley called me into his office in 1998 after he had read my book and asked, ‘Do you think there could be a museum that tells the story of slavery in the lowcountry?’ I said, ‘Yes, but you’ll face a wall of white opposition.’ Twenty-five years later, vindication. It moves me that Mayor Riley says I’m the author of this museum,” said Ball, who now lives in New Haven, and is working on a book about the domestic slave trade. “To write a book is one thing and to put a monument on the ground is another. Mayor Riley has put this stone on the ground.”

Thousands to visit to hear untold stories

When the IAAM announced on Feb. 28 on its Facebook page that a twice-delayed opening date was finally set for June, people reacted. Keisha Hunter of Los Angeles wrote: “Fantastic update! Very excited about returning to South Carolina to witness this history!” Kayci Griffin of Hanahan responded with: “This is the news I’ve been waiting to see! Looking forward to taking my homeschooled children. I intend on using IAAM as an integral part of their education.”

They will be among the thousands of people who are expected to pour into the Port City this summer to enter the museum that sits on the former site of Gadsden’s Wharf, once a slave trading site where hundreds of Africans perished in the winter of 1807 while waiting for the auction block.

Riley described the museum as a splendid reflection of his vision “to honor the untold stories of the African American journey at one of our country’s most sacred sites. It stands as a testament to what can be accomplished when an initiative seeks and demands excellence in every aspect of its development. Our commitment to excellence never relented over the 23 years from idea to opening.”

But during that time the city could not shake the obvious contradiction of the location for the $120 million museum. A museum that honors African American history and the horrors of Gadsden Wharf is adjacent to an open field that was once a predominantly Black neighborhood now erased due to gentrification. Riley said he was never concerned the choice of the museum’s location would be criticized because of its proximity to the former Ansonborough Homes at the east end of Calhoun Street.

 “Gadsden’s Wharf is sacred ground,” the former mayor said. “The history of that land is so important to the stories the museum will tell.” The housing project was in a very low-lying area and experienced significant flooding in September 1989 during Hurricane Hugo.

Construction of the nearby South Carolina Aquarium revealed underground sludge from a coal gasification plant. As a result, it was necessary to relocate scores of Ansonborough residents, demolish the projects, treat the soil and cap the site, Riley said.

“This afforded a great opportunity to relocate [Ansonborough] residents to scattered site public housing throughout the city and on Johns Island,” Riley said. “Scattered site public housing is something I championed as mayor. I was determined to build beautiful new public housing on vacant lots throughout the city instead of monolithic housing ‘projects.’” The decision to remove the housing project because of the pollution, however, has not prevented new upscale development on the fringe of the former Ansonborough Homes site.

Calling on a friend for guidance

To shepherd the museum idea, Riley asked his friend U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-South Carolina, to lead a steering committee made up of local people to begin the process of planning for the museum. Clyburn, a Sumter native and a former history teacher at Charles A. Brown High School on the east side of the city, had seen how development has changed the predominantly Black community and Gullah Geechee communities along coastal South Carolina.

Thomalind Polite traced her ancestry back to a 10-year-old enslaved girl brought to Charleston in the 18th Century. | Courtesy Thomalind Martin Polite

Clyburn said his approach to mitigating the effects of development on African American history and culture went into his efforts to win congressional approval in 2006 for the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The gradual disappearance of sweetgrass, used to make African-inspired coiled sweetgrass baskets, is one of the downsides to coastal development, he said.

“We can say that [development] is happening, and I hate that it is happening or get involved in it to see what you can do to … make the best out of this,” he said. 

The IAAM is a lasting memorial for the people who lived and died on the east side of Charleston and for the Africans who arrived in Charleston through Gadsden’s Wharf, he said. The wharf’s location is the best site for the museum than a tract of city-owned land closer to the South Carolina Aquarium, he said.

The connection to Sierra Leone

To tell Charleston’s link with West Africa’s Rice Coast museum, planners had hoped to secure a special artifact to illustrate the heart-pounding moments during the transition from freedom to slavery. 

Captured Africans bound for slavery in America took their last steps on African soil along a jetty at Bunce Island near Freetown, Sierra Leone. They walked the stone jetty before they were ferried on smaller boats to ocean-going vessels. IAAM planners hoped to obtain a Bunce Island jetty stone for a museum display. 

“We continue to pursue this most worthy idea, but the stone memorial will not be in place for the opening,” Riley lamented.

Looking back

It is possible that in 1756 that a 10-year-old Susu girl from Sierra Leone may have walked the Bunce Island jetty before she was brought to Charleston and later purchased by Elisa Ball, who took her to one of his plantations in Berkeley County. Ball named the girl Priscilla. Edward Ball tells the story of Priscilla’s Charleston descendants in Slaves in the Family

Polite is among those who traveled to West Africa for a homecoming. | Courtesy Thomalind Martin Polite

In 2005, Sierra Leoneans embraced Priscilla’s seventh-generation great-granddaughter Thomalind Martin Polite, a North Charleston speech language pathologist, who was invited to Sierra Leone for an event dubbed “Priscilla’s Homecoming.”

Polite is linked to Priscilla through the Ball plantation records and the Hare, a New England-based slave ship that brought Priscilla to the Carolina Colony. Finding both ship and plantation records to document the journey of a captured West African to America is rare in genealogical and historical research, scholars said.

As Polite toured the Freetown area Sierra Leoneans embraced her, believing she had returned her ancestors spirit to her homeland. Polite’s story is featured in the IAAM’s Center for Family History. Its staff will help visitors trace their genealogy. They will also direct visitors to DNA testing so they can use science to find their African roots. 

Although Polite has not yet seen the center’s exhibit that features her picture, she said, “It is an honor to be prominently presented in a historical fashion, but it is not about me. It is about my ancestors. I think the focus should be on their journey and their lives.”

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