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A New African American Museum In Charleston Will Rise Above a Significant Site From the Slave Trade

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Approximately half of all enslaved Africans who were brought to the United States disembarked at the former Charleston wharf where the International African American Museum will stand.

Courtesy of International African American Museum 

Approximately half of all enslaved Africans who were brought to the United States disembarked at the former Charleston wharf where the International African American Museum will stand.

Slated to open in 2021, the groundbreaking institution aspires to honor the past, present, and future on the spot where thousands of enslaved Africans first set foot in the United States.

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When the International African American Museum (IAAM) debuts in Charleston in late 2021, the long-awaited institution will be elevated by pillars as a sign of respect for the site on which it stands: the former Gadsden’s Wharf, where almost half of the imprisoned Africans who were brought to North America on slave ships disembarked in the United States.

Between 1783 and 1808, the peak years of the transatlantic slave trade, an estimated 100,000 West African men, women, and children awaited sale at the wharf. According to information from the museum, it’s possible that all African Americans can identify at least one ancestor who passed through the South Carolina point of entry, which is often referred to as the “Ellis Island of African Americans.” 

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More than two decades after the IAAM was first proposed in 2000 by Charleston’s former mayor Joe Riley, construction on the site has finally begun. When complete, the waterfront museum will, of course, acknowledge the ugly history of Gadsden’s Wharf. In the Atlantic Connections Gallery, one of the museum’s eight planned exhibition spaces, the focus will be on the slave trade voyages between major ports in Africa, Europe, and the Americas during the 16th to 19th centuries. According to a preview of the museum’s layout on IAAM’s website, this gallery will evoke the physical journey of the Middle Passage (the forced voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean), featuring a walkway that connects two semi-enclosed spaces—one representing a barracoon, a type of barracks used to confine enslaved Africans prior to voyages, and the other representing the Gadsden’s Wharf warehouse, where the captive individuals awaited sale after arriving in Charleston.

The “American Journey—South Carolina Lens” exhibit will provide an in-depth timeline of South Carolina’s history displayed on informational panels.

Other galleries will feature exhibits such as Carolina Gold: Rice Culture in the Lowcountry, which will detail how wealth that resulted from rice, tobacco, sugar, and cotton cultivation in the South—all based on slave labor—went on to fuel the United States’ economic growth. An exhibit titled American Journey—South Carolina Lens will provide an in-depth timeline of South Carolina’s history. According to museum organizers, this interactive gallery will reflect on the lasting impact of slavery on U.S. society and pose questions “about ‘why’ and ‘how’ certain situations persist” in regard to issues such as voting rights, mass incarceration, and policing. There will also be changing exhibitions throughout the year, many of which will go further than recounting the story of slavery alone. 

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One of the IAAM’s main goals will be to highlight the various cultures, traditions, and languages that enslaved Africans brought with them to the United States and to examine the unshakeable role those legacies play in what the museum describes as “the greater American story.” For example, an entire gallery will be dedicated to the African American communities along the coasts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina known as the Gullah Geechee people. This cultural identity—a hybrid of African, Native American, and European American influences—formed during slavery as the result of creolization (the process in which linguistic and cultural practices blend to create new cultures). The Gullah Geechee Gallery will feature a Praise House (place of worship) installation that museumgoers can enter. In the IAAM’s gift shop, visitors will also be able to purchase weavings and baskets made of sweetgrass, one of the most recognizable hallmarks of Gullah Geechee culture. 

Visitors can explore a Praise House (place of worship) installation in the museum’s Gullah Geechee Gallery.

But the IAAM’s most groundbreaking function might lie beyond its galleries. In the Center for Family History, a research center with four Family History Rooms will allow visitors to draw connections to their African American ancestors with the help of archival databases and museum staff with genealogy training. (Many African Americans have trouble tracing their family lineage beyond 1870, when the U.S. census listed African Americans by their full names for the first time. Prior to that, plantation records and estate inventories often used first names only, making last names an unreliable way to trace family history.) Because of inadequate records relating to ancestry for African American communities, oral histories have long passed down information between generations. Next to the Center for Family History, a four-person Oral History Story Booth will provide space where families can share and record their stories, which the IAAM hopes to one day make available on its website and even throughout the museum itself.

Just as much thought and care went into the outdoor grounds of the museum. Woven around and underneath the elevated building, the African Ancestors Memorial Garden will feature artistic installations and quiet enclaves with seating options. And as visitors approach the museum from the Charleston Harbor boardwalk, they’ll encounter the Tide Tribute, a pool of water that fills and empties every hour like an ocean tide. As the water’s depth changes, the installation will reveal a now-famous 18th-century diagram published by British abolitionists that depicts hundreds of enslaved Africans lying in close proximity to one another in the Brookes slave ship, a British vessel used to complete voyages across the Middle Passage. According to the museum, the Tide Tribute will be bordered by the actual historic line of Gadsden’s Wharf, which will be marked by a stainless steel band on the eastern edge of the site.

The Tide Tribute features changing water levels that reveal an 18th-century diagram depicting hundreds of enslaved Africans on a vessel lying in close proximity to one another.

When the IAAM opens in late 2021, its African Ancestors Memorial Gardens will be free for the public to explore. As visitors wander its quiet palm groves and enclaves draped in the Lowcountry’s signature Spanish moss, museum officials say the hope is that people will be urged to think about “what is and why” in the context of the slavery in the United States.

There might not be a more significant place to ponder such substantial issues than at this former point of entry for enslaved Africans, which historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., called “ground zero of the African American experience” in a statement about the museum’s opening.

>> Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Charleston

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