The Smithsonian’s African American Museum of History and Culture opened Sept. 24. It is expected to boost black tourism in the nation’s capital, resulting in increased profits to black owned businesses in the Washington, D.C. area. The International African American Museum is expected to open in Charleston by 2019.
Tourism is Charleston’s most important economic driving force. Black visitors to South Carolina spent some $2.4 billion in the state, according to a recent University of South Carolina study, said African American business consultant Kwadjo Campbell. His group JC & Associates conducted its fifth annual African American Tourism Conference in Charleston Oct. 1.
The black business environment in Washington is more prepared to take advantage of the tourism boost the Museum of African American History and Culture will bring to the nation’s capitol. That environment doesn’t yet exist in Charleston, Campbell said. Black tourists come to the state’s tourism centers in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, but few black owned businesses receive much of the $2.4 billion they spend. Most of that goes to hotels, restaurants gift shops and vendors owned by whites.
“What black business needs to do is prepare,” Campbell said. “Develop products that can take advantage of the business already here and that which is coming,” he said. “Charleston’s black business community needs to begin to develop an economic infrastructure that includes bed and breakfasts, tour companies and gift shops. Some of that doesn’t take a lot of money.” Campbell offered the example of a James Island boat tour company started by a black woman who offers excursions on inter-coastal waterways pointing out significant sites along the way.
“That gives some perspective of what can happen in Charleston,” he says. “It takes vision and entrepreneurship and some money that in many cases can be provided by local government through community development block grants and accommodations taxes. The challenge is to get local government to invest,” he said.
Former Mount Pleasant Town Councilwoman Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, co-founder of the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association, points to the successful 12-year-old black arts festival that has grown with the cooperation of the Town of Mount Pleasant. She agrees that while tourism traditionally has been the economic engine driving the local economy and despite the role black culture and history plays in it, black business gets the short end of the financial benefits stick.
“Black people may be cooking in the restaurants that so many people come here to enjoy, but they don’t own them. So much of tourism here is connected to the African American community, but there’s no inclusiveness in terms of ownership. We need to tap that resource. There’s no question it can be done. We have talented people within our community who can become entrepreneurs. But they must be willing to do the work and make the sacrifices,” Stokes-Marshall said.
Campbell says building an economic infrastructure within the black business community may be a long term effort. But he rationalizes, “The museum isn’t going anywhere.”