By Barney Blakeney
Charleston’s International African American Museum last week completed its 18-year fundraising effort to obtain $75 million necessary to construct the state’s largest museum dedicated to African American history and culture. Former Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley in 2000 presented the concept for the museum he said would document, preserve, interpret, present and promote African American History. There are those who feel the project is more a venture into the tourism industry than an attempt to interpret African American history. So I asked two local Black historians their opinions.
I asked College of Charleston History Professor Dr. Bernard Powers, a member of the committee which has steered the project what impact the construction of the museum will have on the local Black community.
“Here are the things that immediately come to mind in terms of what this all means,” he began in response, “and keep in mind that I have a certain emphasis, vision and expertise as well as responsibility for the project. Others with more direct involvement in fundraising and the financial management of the project will possibly have some different responses.
“First, some of the fruits of this milestone have already been seen in the form of new hires on the museum staff. It was only as IAAM moved really close to achieving the fundraising goal for the building that the professional staff could be expanded. There have been several new African American professionals added in key positions and they will help to further publicize IAAM and integrate the community into the project as they conduct and fulfill their responsibilities. IAAM will not have a large staff but it will provide new employment opportunities for community members and the construction process will afford other temporary employment opportunities.
“Secondly I hope that we will be able to see an uptick in IAAM sponsored or co-sponsored activities in the community so that our audience will begin to develop a better sense of what kind of offerings, programs and services the museum will routinely offer; for example beginning to work with local school districts to develop programs that can use the facilities and expertise of IAAM to improve student learning and performance. Work will commence with the religious community to see how IAAM can lay the groundwork for integrating its stories into the museum and to also work with this vital part of the city on issues of social justice.
“Thirdly, Charleston has a new police chief and we have every hope and expectation that IAAM will become an important means of assisting in the professional training of both new and veteran officers and administrators in the realm of our state’s racial history and legacy. The kind of exposure that IAAM can provide will assist these men and women to become even better public servants and engender greater community confidence in the important roles that they play.”
I asked Social Justice and Public History Consultant Dr. Millicent Brown, Ph.D., principal of Lightbright, LLC how the local Black community can maximize benefits from the impending construction of the museum.
“First you have to separate fact from fiction,” she said. No space for permanent collections is designed in the building; therefore it’s not a museum, but rather an exhibition hall. From its inception the project has lacked adequate input from Black historians. And absent any commitment to the economic inclusion of the Black business community the project won’t provide historical, cultural or economic benefits to the African American community, she said.
Brown echoed sentiments she expressed in a 2014 interview. She had three major concerns – the priority of its development, the commercialization of Black History and its ability to accurately reflect Black History. The project should reflect inclusion of history in the past, as it exists in the present and how it will be established in the future. Brown said she was reticent because if Charleston wants to address the state of Black history in the city, creating a museum might not represent the most viable way to do that.
“When I look at the things Charleston’s Black community needs, I don’t see the museum at the top of the list. We should have a discussion about economic set-asides that nearby cities like Columbia and Savannah have adopted and how do we protect Black businesses and professionals. So many inequities have not been addressed,” she said.
The effort to establish the museum has merit, but Brown said embracing that initiative should include commitments to insure the African American business community also prospers from the endeavor. “That needs to happen up front,” she said. Most importantly, Brown said creating the International African American Museum can’t be viewed as was the construction of Charleston’s aquarium.
“When you’re talking about the history of a people, it’s not just another business. There needs to be an open discussion about its purpose. And that discussion should include people who have lived that history through their lives and professions. The museum is not just the narrative, it’s our history – a history of exploitation. The museum should not be something that continues that exploitation.” Her views have remained consistent over the past 20 years, Brown said and they haven’t changed now that funding is completed.