By Barney Blakeney
Last week I got a list of 21 questions a group advocating for more input into the development of the International African American Museum feels should be asked of those putting the thing together. They’re some heavy questions – complicated and multi-layered – but they’re questions I think should be answered. For example the first question asks why the proposed structures aren’t “solar powered LEED certified buildings” and the last question asks why the IAAM’s administrators are reluctant to accept proposals from the community such as the inclusions of an on-site restaurant and a hotel.
This whole thing about an African American museum has been like hiccups that won’t go away ever since former Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley got the bright idea to appease a bunch of Black folks back in 2000. Back then former Charleston City Councilman Wendell Gilliard suggested renaming Spring Street in honor of Dr. Martin L. King Jr. I knew that wasn’t going anywhere. And it didn’t.
To appease those Black folks, the Riley administration agreed to put up a sign designating the Spring Street/Cannon Street corridors “The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial District”. That didn’t pan out so well either. The area was a hub for Black businesses and an elite Black residential community. But since that 1999 designation, gentrification has transformed the area displacing nearly all its former Black businesses and residents. Today, the Spring Street/Cannon Street corridors are almost exclusively home to white residents and businesses.
It’s been 19 years since the powers that be have played with the concept of a museum to tell the story of Blacks in Charleston. Time enough for Black folks to counteract the old bait and switch. There are more questions now than in the past. Among the group’s questions are several which address the project’s authenticity. Personally, I think it might be more prudent to question its sincerity. Does it really take 20 years to build a museum? Maybe – it took about 20 years to put a statue of Denmark Vesey at Hampton Park.
During the 19 years it’s taken to get to this point – fundraising for the $75 million project Riley said would document, preserve, interpret, present and promote African American History and culture was completed last August – plans have been redesigned, downsized and disputed. The group now calling itself “Citizens Want Excellence At IAAM” has been at the forefront advocating for greater engagement many of those years.
The group continues to question the credentials of the IAAM’s leadership and the decisions they make. I reckon that’s a good thing. People should be held accountable. But I think the group shouldn’t allow itself to get caught up in some egotistic delusion that “it ain’t right unless I think it’s right”. And while scrutiny always is a good thing, I think scrutiny also must be objective and realistic.
I’ve been advised there’s no such thing as stupid questions, only stupid answers. But I’m a little perplexed at the group’s questions about economic aspects of the IAAM. Again Riley, the mastermind, had a stroke of genius in thinking of creating the museum – or whatever you want to call it. I think he realized that at the same time he could appease some Black folks, he could create another economic engine for the local economy. I think some right-minded Black folks are aware of that as well. So I wonder why the group continues to insist on an authentic museum.
That thing ain’t about history and culture. It’s about tourism and money! Just like hoppin john, red rice, shrimp and grits – them folks is primed to make money offin we. And we better get in line to make some of that money! That means we can’t just be cryin’ po’ mout bout telling our history and culture – we better be figuring out how to get summa dat m-o-n-e-y!
I figure the IAAM is gonna happen. Despite admonition and opposition, them folks have put up some serious dough to bake that bread. Five years ago I wrote a story about the development of the IAAM. At that time Charleston City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie said the IAAM should be approached just as the city has approached construction of the Gailliard Auditorium and fire station at Heriot and Meeting streets. Both projects had specific minority business participation goals which have been exceeded, Gregorie said. The IAAM especially will be an opportunity for jobs, but also is an opportunity for other business, he said. Black entrepreneurs with vision can carve out niches in the local tourism industry as the city experiences an era of amazing possibilities, Gregorie said.
With all its faults, indeed the possibilities to be realized by the IAAM are amazing. But in addition to asking questions the Black community simultaneously must develop and implement business strategies. Black folks with vision don’t just ask questions. They come up with answers.