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Upcoming Museum Must Rise Above the Exploitation of Blacks
12/3/2014 3:33:25 PM

Millicent Brown

Michael Allen
By Barney Blakeney

For nearly 15 years Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley has pushed to construct the International African American Museum in the city. Next year Riley is slated to leave the office he’s held 40 years and the $75 million museum price tag remains unmet. As some voices question whether the museum ultimately will be built, others question its development process.

Almost half the money needed to build the museum has been donated by local governments - the City of Charleston, Charleston County and the State of South Carolina. About $45 million remains to be acquired before construction can continue. Riley hopes to get the money through private donations.

But as the fundraising process begins there are those who feel the process has become more a venture into the tourism industry than an attempt to interpret African American history.

Local historian Wilmot A. Fraser said since Riley’s announcement of plans to create the museum, he’s been concerned that a governmental entity, one which has in the past oppressed Black people and one which continues to oppress Black people, now will endeavor to interpret their history. He emphasizes that such an effort should take place, but the initiative should begin with Black people.

“The city can’t co-op our history then tell it. For over 300 years this city has oppressed African American people and it continues that oppression. In the past 15 years it has displaced African Americans in the city who once were 70 percent of its population. How can it tell the story of African American people?” he asks.

Fraser isn’t alone in his concerns about the input of African Americans in the museum’s development process. National Park Service Ranger Michael Allen whose focus for the service has been the interpretation of African American History was among several Blacks who were members of the museum’s development committee.

Allen said bringing the museum to reality is a daunting task. But he adds there must be a concern about its ability to accurately reflect the sensitivity of the story of African Americans. Charleston’s rivers served as the birth canal for the arrival of African Americans in this country, Allen said.

“This is where that story should be told,” he said of the museum's creation. “But it must be done right with the right voices.” He’s confident the museum will be built after Riley leaves office. He thinks the process has been an open one.

Black historian, Millicent Brown thinks the process can be more open and inclusive. She shared some thoughts about the museum’s development as well.

She had three major concerns - the priority of its development, the commercialization of Black History and its ability to accurately reflect Black History. That reflection should include the history of the past, as it exists in the present and how it will be established in the future.

Brown said she is reticent about the museum 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 says 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.”

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