Photos by Ruta Smith

Nine core galleries, a special exhibit space and a genealogy center in the new International African American Museum (IAAM) present a sweeping story of the forced migration of Africans to America.

It’s a museum like no other — and lives up to its name as being international.

The IAAM’s galleries reveal the realities of the slave trade and plantation life while presenting the skills and culture of people of African descent and their contributions to this country. 

The museum, built on the site of a 19th century slave-trading port on the Cooper River, faced several delays, but opens June 27 to the public. Delays and changes have increased the museum’s cost from $75 million to nearly $100 million, said c ity of Charleston spokesman Jack O’Toole. The city owns the building, and leases it annually to the IAAM for $1. The museum’s construction and completion was fueled by more than $150 million from state and local governments, companies, nonprofits and individuals. 

In a 2000 state-of-the-city address, then-Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. announced his desire to build the museum. The following year, a site across from the South Carolina Aquarium was selected. But three years later, plans changed, and the city paid $3.5 million for the current site, known as Gadsden’s Wharf.

 ‘Trauma and joy’

When the IAAM opens, its story starts outside at two yet-to-be-finished black granite walls memorializing the more than 700 Africans who froze to death in 1806 at the wharf. The memorial walls fit within the concrete outline on the ground of the storage house where the enslaved people perished during an unexpected freeze. To represent them, a series of human figures appear as if they are emerging from the ground. The black polished walls bear a quote from the late Maya Angelou: “And still I rise.”

In fact, the long, narrow museum, supported 13 feet off the ground by 18 cylindrical pillars, appears to rise from the ground where the enslaved died. IAAM President and CEO Tonya Matthews said understanding why the building was raised blunts earlier criticism that the museum on paper is not visually striking. 

“The design of this building is what gave rise to the African Ancestors Memorial Garden that sits under it,” she said in 2022 when she gave the City Paper an exclusive tour of the museum. Art installations in the garden, she explained, cover ground which essentially has become the museum’s first floor, a design she inherited when she was selected in March 2021 to lead the museum.

Placing the museum at the former slave port, Matthews said, illustrates “the greatest gifts African Americans have to give is our ability to simultaneously hold the sensation of trauma and joy.”

Galleries hold untold stories

Under the museum, a wide staircase ascends into the center of the building’s skylight atrium and a glass front entrance. The stairs provide seating in a shaded amphitheater-like setting for community events with a cool breeze from the river. At the building’s east end, overlooking the Cooper River, large exhibits in galleries are arranged by geography and culture. At the west end with a view of the Concord Street soccer field, galleries are arranged chronologically.

In addition to the memorial wall, another solemn presentation is at the building’s harborside in two small flanking mini galleries in the larger Atlantic Worlds Gallery.

On the black walls of the Port of Departure mini gallery are the names and ages of scores of young Africans, including Houa, 7, Lome, 14, and Halem, 22. They were among the captives who were freed after illegal slave ships were intercepted in the early to mid-1800s after many countries, including Britain and the United States, outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The names, ages and other details of the Africans became part of legal records that were later used to develop a slave trade database. 

In the opposing Port of Arrival mini gallery, black walls are covered with the Americanized names of captives, such as Solomon, Venus and Poor Man. 

“These names are a bit easier to come by from slave and plantation records,” Matthews said. “These are the simplest galleries, but the ones that say the most.”

Three of the nine galleries tell the stories of rice, culture and religion. Slavery is told through rice in the Carolina Gold Gallery. The Carolina Connections gallery displays scenes of modern South Carolina and other African American sites across the state. The Gullah Geechee Gallery holds a replica of a praise house with the sounds of a worship service recorded at Johns Island’s Moving Star Hall Praise House on River Road. At the museum’s west end, the staff in The Center for Family History will help visitors trace their genealogy. The staff will also direct visitors to DNA testing so they can use science to find their African roots. 

During the tour with the City Paper, Matthews acknowledged the IAAM’s story about slavery will not be widely popular. 

“Museums are places where you are allowed to show up and admit you don’t know something,” she said. “When you are at a museum, you are learning. An environment like this is really helpful for conversations like that.”

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