The late Boston architect Henry Cobb conceived of the museum’s design. Windows in the long, narrow plain building are adorned inside and out with faux shutters and trim made from brown Ipe, a durable and dense Central and South American wood. | Photo by Ruta Smith

A place for learning

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

The IAAM’s galleries will 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 public will have to wait, however, until Jan. 21, 2023, to tour the museum being built on the site of Gadsden’s Wharf, a 19th century slave-trading port on the Cooper River. The museum was expected to be completed by March 2022, but then the opening was pushed back to this summer and delayed again.

Delays and changes have increased the museum’s cost from $75 million to nearly $100 million, said City of Charleston spokesman Jack O’Toole. The city owns the building, and will lease it annually to the IAAM for $1.

Charleston City Council on Tuesday was expected to approve the latest in a series of construction changes that will raise the museum’s cost by an additional $338,000. The museum’s overall cost increased due to pandemic-related delays and changes in materials. Although council votes on the changes, the IAAM pays for them. The city pledged $12.5 million in accommodation taxes to pay for the museum’s design, engineering and architectural oversight. After the museum opens, O’Toole said, the city will maintain the museum’s African Ancestors Memorial Garden, an ethnobotanical garden with indigenous plants from West Africa, the Caribbean and the Lowcountry. Sweetgrass is the garden’s most recognizable local plant.

Dr. Tonya M. Matthews previously worked as the director of the STEM Innovation Learning Center at Wayne State University in Detroit | Courtesy IAAM

Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, the museum’s president and chief executive officer, said during the museum’s planning, the city negotiated a construction budget through “a guaranteed maximum price process. … The project did bear [the] impact of unexpected pandemic-induced costs like most construction projects.” The museum’s current operating cost also has been affected by the pandemic, she said. “We managed our budgets and expenditures carefully, and we continue to do so,” she said. After the opening, the operating budget is expected to range between $8 million to $10 million annually, Matthews said.

The museum has received more than $100 million from state and local governments, companies, nonprofits and individuals. Last week, aerospace manufacturer The Boeing Company gave the museum its second $1 million donation. The money will provide free admission for underserved children.

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 Gadsden’s Wharf site.

“Trauma and joy”

A shallow outdoor reflection pool, the Tide Tribute, will hold rising and falling water that covers silhouettes resembling bodies packed in a slave ship. The pool is adjacent to the concrete outline of a Gadsden’s Wharf building where 700 enslaved people in 1806 froze to death. | Photo by Herb Frazier

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 will appear as if they are emerging from the ground. The black polished walls will 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. Understanding why the building was raised, Matthews said, 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 as 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,” Matthews said.

Three of the nine galleries will 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. 

As she stepped around construction debris, Matthews said the museum will enter into partnerships with other museums and historic sites to not be in competition with them. “Even in a museum as large as this one, we can only tell part of the story,” she said.

Ironically, a museum that tells the story of slavery is in a neighborhood where Black Charlestonians have been pushed out by gentrification. “I am still learning that conversation as a newcomer to Charleston,” said Matthews, a Washington, D.C., native. The entire city has experienced demographic shifts, she said. “If the museum can have some impact it would be to shed context around these conversations in a way that helps us think about … what’s next,” she explained.

Currently, the museum has 27 employees and when it opens that number is expected to rise to 40, Matthews said. The museum’s staff makeup has been questioned by some who’ve said not enough local people have been hired. 

“We’re proud to be an organization that can recruit national talent as well as be an opportunity to help our community retain and develop local talent,” she said. “Our team is 42% native to the Lowcountry — and including local hires not originally from South Carolina, we are at 58%. Additionally, we have staff members who have been in our region for years and have come to and work for the museum, as well. We have a few team members whose roles and expertise are remote, but currently all but two of our team members live in the Charleston area.”

On Friday, Matthews was one of the presenters during the Association of African American Museums Conference in Miami. “The Burden We Carry? Critical Race Theory & The Role of Black Museums,” was the title of her presentation. 

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,” she said. “An environment like this is really helpful for conversations like that.”

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