Honoring African Americans
Charleston and the Lowcountry have many wonderful qualities. There is the beauty of the ocean and marshes, historic architecture, fabulous food, quiet streets, sandy beaches, a world-class aquarium, the College of Charleston, and The Citadel. We live in a place that continually surprises and delights the eyes, the mind and the heart.
Every day we are given a new opportunity of discovery. Something is uncovered or revealed that has been right before our eyes and under our feet all the time. Sometimes these encounters expose the harsh reality of the human journey as well as the triumph of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, both of which are part of our country’s and city’s heritage.
So it is with Arrival Square, the name proposed for the area contiguous with Liberty Square at the harbor end of Calhoun Street. The majority of Africans brought in chains to North America between 1783 and 1807 landed and were sold into slavery here. Thousands departed from here to create and tend the rice and cotton fields that made South Carolina one of the wealthiest states of the young nation.
They built magnificent mansions, plantations, ships and roads, and cared for the masters’ children. Together, with people from every corner of the globe, they formed a new nation. Hundreds died here, adding sacredness to the place.
At the time, the place was called Gadsden’s Wharf, named for the Revolutionary patriot who built here what was then the largest wharf in North America. The historian James A. McMillan in “The Final Victims: Foreign Slave Trade to North America, 1783-1810,” calls Charleston the Ellis Island of black America. Ellis Island was the primary gateway to America for Europeans who came willingly. Angel Island in San Francisco served the same role for Asians. Gadsden’s Wharf was the main entry point for thousands of Africans, who were brought to North America against their will.
The International African-American Museum (IAAM) and Arrival Square that Mayor Joe Riley and the IAAM board hope to create on this nationally significant historic site will be more than a narrative of slavery. Like Ellis Island and Angel Island, IAAM and Arrival Square will be vivid windows opening to a more complete understanding of the American experience. Here Americans will learn of the immeasurable contributions that the descendants of those who arrived at Gadsden’s Wharf in shackles have made to the fabric and greatness of our country.
From here South Carolinians and visitors can begin their exploration of Charleston’s and the Lowcountry’s authentic historic places that tell stories of tragedy, struggle, and overcoming. Here visitors will be introduced to the distinctive tales of the Gullah Geechee people who continue to remind us of our nation’s African heritage. The IAAM at Arrival Square will also provide resources for individuals and families searching for their own roots and histories.
Creating the IAAM and Arrival Square is a project of national significance. As such, it will be a challenge of national dimension. When completed, it will be an educational, economic, cultural and emotional benefit for Charleston and the Lowcountry. Arrival Square and IAAM will provide Charlestonians and all Americans the opportunity to gain a deeper awareness and appreciation of our country, ourselves, and our neighbors.
Robert R. Macdonald, visiting scholar at College of Charleston, is Director Emeritus of the Museum of the City of New York. He lives in Mount Pleasant.