The enslaved Africans brought here on dirty cramped ships centuries before anyone alive today was born would never have imagined a museum built to explain their journey and impact.
But finally — after generations of whippings, violence and lynchings as well as a civil war that ripped apart the nation — we are at a historical tipping point. With the nation’s 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approaching in just three years, is the time we in Charleston must try to better appreciate and honor the toil of enslaved Africans and their descendents who built great wealth in a country that claimed to offer freedom for all, but did not.
“Journeys” is our special commemorative magazine that welcomes the International African American Museum (IAAM) to Charleston and the world. We encourage you to read the stories in the pages ahead that profile the people who shaped America’s food, music, arts and politics.
Now is the perfect time for a museum dedicated to telling generations of stories stemming from the lives of enslaved Africans brutally brought to what became the United States. And now is the perfect time for Charleston, where two of every five of the enslaved disembarked from cruel slaving ships that fueled chattel slavery, to embrace this museum built on a wharf where importation of people ended in 1808.
“This museum is needed now more than ever,” Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said May 10 during a panel discussion in which the museum was honored by the Riley Institute at Furman University. In passionate remarks, he said the IAAM would fill in the gaps of history here and around the world with fuller stories to help explain ongoing disparities in American society often experiencing denial, conflict and rancor.
The museum will pull together White, tan, brown, Black and other Americans to give richer looks at the history and culture that shaped our country. Even more exciting is the new IAAM Center for Family History which will serve as a genealogical hub to connect descendants of enslaved Africans to their lost family pasts. The museum will help to fill voids ignored by history books and allow many Americans to reclaim their family stories and heritage.
Dr. Tonya Matthews, president and CEO of the IAAM, said the museum will be a site of pilgrimage that will become transformative.
“We’re providing the means for folks to unearth their own stories,” she said recently, adding, “We bring people here to learn. We are a site of journey and an end point for so many folks.”
And for Charleston and the South, which for generations has mostly avoided deep discussions about the scar of racism and a past that profited from slavery, the IAAM will have a broader role to spark new discussions and better understanding of the past and present.
“This museum brings with it value,” U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said in a recent short film. “It means that South Carolina is paying homage to the diversity of its citizens and that South Carolina is not running away from its history — that South Carolina is being true in our pursuit for a more perfect union.”
When the museum opens June 27, we encourage you to visit often to get a better sense of the whole story of historic Charleston. Give thanks to visionaries like former Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. who pushed to build the museum. Quench your curiosity about what really happened in the past, not just moonlight and magnolias mythmaking.
Now is the time to welcome this transformative museum and use it to heal wounds that still blister the present.
The museum will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays starting June 27.
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Charleston City Paper.
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