Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley addresses a crowd at the International African American Museum during its June 24 dedication. Photo by Andy Brack

Hundreds of people peacefully gathered Saturday morning in two locations to celebrate the dedication of the International African American Museum (IAAM).  Charleston’s oppressive heat was missing but the city’s summer humidity punctuated the sunny morning’s moderate temperature.

Click the image above to read the Charleston City Paper‘s 48-page commemorative magazine on the new museum.

“This museum that we open today is a gift to our country and a gift to each of us and our future,” said former Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who pushed for 23 years to build the museum that’s now a reality.  It opens Tuesday.  Tickets are sold out.

Riley, who said he estimated he made 10,000 phone calls and had 6,000 meetings to help to raise the $125 million to pay for the museum overlooking the Cooper River, emphasized the IAAM was integral to telling often-ignored African American history that had not been told in a place where it happened.

“[Professor] Henry Louis Gates called Charleston the “ground zero” in the African American experience and indeed it is,” said Riley. About 500 luminaries in attendance roundly welcomed him at the dedication ceremony in shade under the museum, which seems to float above the location of Gadsden’s Wharf.  Some 40% of enslaved Africans who entered American settlements generations ago are believed to have come through Charleston.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg spoke at Marion Square during the museum opening. Photo by Owen Kowalewski.

Blocks away at a public community celebration at Marion Square, which was simulcast between the two locations, current Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg told about 1,000 people that the new museum was a living edifice that would “rekindle the promise of America all over the world” through its deeply moving American stories and connections.

“We can all bear witness in the heartbreak and the hope that is its legacy.”

For U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a powerful South Carolina Democrat who served as a key leader in the early days of the museum, the dedication was powerfully moving.

“This is one of the happiest days of my life,” said the 82-year-old Sumter native now serving in his 16th term in Congress. 

Planting seeds

In 1998, Riley read author Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family, which tells the story of his slave-holding South Carolina family.  Riley quickly resolved to have a place to tell the story of the African American experience.  The project was announced in 2000 and slowly developed steam fueled by funding from corporate, governmental, nonprofit, foundation, individuals and other donors.  

The museum seeks to “honor untold stories of the African American journey at one of our country’s most sacred sites,” according to its website.


“We are here,” IAAM President and CEO Dr. Tonya M. Matthews said in a welcome, “to reimagine [history] and to tell one of the greatest stories of struggle of all time.”

The story of African Americans in Charleston and across the continent often was more than just untold, she said.  It was unspoken, hidden, erased and denied. 

But “stories are seeds and seeds sprout as roses that invite you to lean in. … The seeds have been planted.  Let us till this soil.  Welcome to the International African American Museum.”

In a recorded video message, former First Lady Michelle Obama said she and her husband were thrilled to celebrate the opening of the museum.  Her ancestors had daily roots at a Georgetown plantation.

Former President Barack Obama observed: “It’s a powerful museum – one that every American can learn something from. It’s an important part of our collective history.”

Obama’s former administrator of NASA, South Carolina native Charles F. Bolden Jr., also appeared on video screens at both locations: “Black history is American history and we need to have a place that people from around the world can come to understand our history.”

“Where everything started”

Joy Bivins, who worked in 2018 to 2020 in Charleston to help bring the museum to reality, traveled to Charleston for the opening.


“I’m just excited it came to fruition,” said Bivins, now director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.  “I recognize it as a center of the Black American experience.  I think the museum put that culture in the limelight – in the public consciousness where it needs to be because this is where everything started.”

Michael B. Moore, the museum’s founding president and CEO who is now running for Congress, said the IAAM’s opening was emotionally overwhelming.

“To create an institution that elevates the stories of people who have given so much to the building of our country is so important,” he said, adding that the museum’s new Center for Family History will help Black families connect in new ways to their heritage.

“The Center for Family History has the potential for being a profoundly positive resource because the museum is feeding the story of history.  Anything we can do to articulate a broader swath of that history is a powerful tool to help them understand.”

At the public “Community Watch” at Marion Square, Moncks Corner native and national radio star Charlamagne Tha God emceed a celebration that included performances by local musicians and artists such as Grammy Award-winning band Ranky Tanky, former Charleston poet laureate Marcus Amaker, DJ SCrib, Jesse Nager and more.  Singers Bebe Winans and Candice Glover also performed during the dedication.

Laird Nelson, a Charleston resident since 2005, said he already has tickets for the second day that the museum is open and is planning to go again with family in July.  The museum, he said, is “like a movie. You see it once, but you have to go again to get all the details.”

One woman, who wouldn’t give her name, said she was thrilled with the museum.  “I’m very happy with the museum being built here. It took a while with the delay, but I’m happy it’s finally here. I’ll be going there very soon.” 

A former school teacher who also wouldn’t give her name, attended the public ceremony but wasn’t as positive.

“I think it’s great that they spent all that money on that museum, but at the same time, we need money for the Black people. They are trying to disenfranchise us. They are trying to run us out of our community. They want me to be proud today. But I am not proud today. One day is not going to put a halo over me.”

The museum will open June 27 every Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. excluding Christmas and Thanksgiving. 

Furman University student Owen Kowalewski contributed to this story.

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