As the countdown to the 2019 completion of the International African American Museum in Charleston nears, project coordinators are emphasizing the importance of support from the African American community.
Last week I met with IAAM President /CEO Michael B. Moore to talk about the Black community’s participation in the project. The meeting included viewing a model of the proposed structure, a visit to site of the museum where Gadsden’s Wharf once stood and a wind down at Hannibal’s Restaurant on Charleston’s Eastside.
In 2000 former Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley presented the concept for the museum he envisioned would document, preserve, interpret, present and promote African American History. Originally estimated to cost about $60 million, the project’s cost has increased to about $75 million. About $50 million has been raised from large donors who include government entities and corporate donors.
Board of Directors member, College of Charleston History Prof. Bernard Powers said it is important that the Black community supports the project. It will be an expansion of how people are educated about who black people are and what our presence has meant as well as going forward, he says.
Standing at the former site of Gadsden’s Wharf on the banks of the Cooper River between the Charleston Maritime Center and Dockside Condominiums on Concord Street gave me an eerie sense of that presence. Moore explained that Gadsden’s Wharf was one of the largest in the world as an estimated 48 percent of slaves brought to the New World were unloaded as human cargo.
The wharf extended from the shore inland approximately to the site of Charleston Gailliard Center, he said. The cargo unloaded there made the city the world’s richest. Part of the museum’s landscaping will include a receding pool that covers a depiction of bodies lying in the holds of slave ships. Knowing that I was standing on the ground where those slaves first disembarked gave meaning to Powers’ comment that the museum represents much of what can be learned beyond classrooms.
“That’s the role of museums and similar places,” Powers said noting the museum will contain artifacts and regularly changing exhibitions that allow visitors to see the history, in addition to audio and visual interactive experiences. A conference area will facilitate meetings of local and national organizations and groups. “Think of it as a forum that brings people together who we may not usually have the opportunity to meet or hear and which gives their voices an elevated platform.”
Construction is slated to begin late this year, Powers said. In coming months more focus will be placed on grassroots participation and support. Expect to hear about the International African American Museum in churches and other institutions in the black community, he said.