African American Museum to Open in Charleston

It will be built alongside a historic wharf used during the slave trade.

A rendering of the planned International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: courtesy the International African American Museum.

Charleston, South Carolina, has announced plans to build a $75 million International African American Museum on the city’s harbor, once a major port for the American slave trade, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“There is no better site,” announced mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. on July 15 from the waterfront tract, near historic Gadsden’s Wharf, that will house the future institution. Tens of thousands of slaves entered the country in Charleston, and the first shots of the Civil War were fired at the city’s Fort Sumter. The colony of Carolina was founded in 1670, and welcomed its first slaves that very year.

It has been 13 years since the museum was first proposed, with original plans calling for construction on a vacant lot across the street from the present site. The wharf was chosen when research uncovered its historical significance. Built in 1767 by Christopher Gadsden, a Revolutionary War patriot, it was the port of entry for an estimated 40 percent of African slaves between the late-18th and early-19th century.

From 1803–07 alone, before the the Slave Trade Act theoretically put an end to the US slave trade, more than 70,000 slaves walked across Gadsden Wharf—an astonishing number considering the city was home to only 20,000 residents.

An engraving of the harbor in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: via the International African American Museum.

An engraving of the harbor in Charleston, South Carolina.
Photo: Via the International African American Museum.

“The discovery of this site adds many dimensions to the telling of that story. It adds an historical integrity to that story,” Wilbur Johnson, chairman of the museum board, said in his remarks.

“We always knew this museum would be one of the most important in our country,” the mayor added. “We are standing on the site that will make this museum even more powerful and important and will resonate more deeply with everyone who attends.”

Only part of the proposed site belongs to the city, but the mayor claims that the family that owns the other portion of the lot has agreed to scuttle plans for a restaurant and sell the land back to the government. If all goes according to plan, construction will be funded in equal parts by private donations, city and county tax dollars, and state funds. Tentatively, construction is scheduled to begin in 2016 and to be completed two years later.

The 42,000-square-foot museum will feature interactive exhibits that describe the black experience in America. The displays will be designed by Ralph Appelbaum, who is responsible for the exhibits at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and the new Visitor Reception Center at the United States Capitol.

The announcement for the museum follows on the heels of the acquisition of the first known portrait of a slave by Virginia’s Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, announced last month (see artnet News report).

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