‘A story that deserves to be told’

  • Posted: Saturday, November 16, 2013 12:01 a.m.

Charleston receives visitors by the millions who come to bask in its rich history and enjoy its unparalleled architectural wealth. The International African American Museum will enrich that compelling story.

The museum will be built at Calhoun and Concord streets near Gadsden Wharf, one of the primary docks for ships bringing African slaves to the colony, and briefly, to the state of South Carolina.

And though those black Americans didn’t share in the immense prosperity of coastal South Carolina, they were instrumental in helping to create it, in the rice fields, cotton fields and in Charleston, the richest city in the colonies. Their descendants live in Charleston and throughout the Lowcountry and the state. Indeed, some 45 percent of black Americans can trace their roots back to Charleston.

After more than a decade of planning, the museum is back on track with City Council’s approval of a $12.5 million bond issue to assist in its construction. That revenue will be derived from the city’s tourism taxes.

And Charleston County Council’s Finance Committee on Thursday unanimously recommended contributing $12.5 million of accommodations tax money to the museum effort. The full county council will take a final vote Tuesday.

Further contributions will be sought from the state and from private sources to make up the anticipated $75 million cost.

The museum is no longer envisioned as a repository of relics, but as a place that tells a story. At 42,300 square feet, the museum has been downsized from the original proposal. But in actuality, its dimensions will be far greater than the spaces within its four walls.

“We see this museum as connecting the components of African American history in Charleston,” Mayor Joe Riley says.

And there are many historical sites in Charleston that will effectively serve as outlying exhibits for those who want to learn the larger story.

Those include the Old Slave Mart on Chalmers Street; the Aiken-Rhett mansion on Elizabeth Street, with its rare urban slave quarters; Avery Institute, which provided educational opportunities from Reconstruction well into the 20th century; and Morris Island, where black Union troops were tested in battle for the first time.

Context for African American history also abounds at Middleton Plantation, with working its rice fields and a rice mill, as well as nearby Magnolia Plantation, also located along the Ashley River.

And McLeod Plantation on James Island, now being restored by the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, will serve as an important adjunct to the new museum. There, the plantation house and adjacent slave cabins have been preserved in their agricultural context. McLeod was also the site of the Freedman’s Bureau following the Civil War.

And, of course, African American artisans, slave and free, contributed to the construction of the historic structures throughout the city.

Wilbur Johnson, chairman of the museum board, says the popularity of Charleston among tourists will help assure the museum’s success. The International African American Museum will enable the city “to tell the story in all of its dimensions,” he said.

“It’s a beautiful story in many ways. It’s a grim story in many ways. It’s a story of survival,” he said, “It’s a story that deserves to be told.”

Support for the museum by elected officials and the public will ensure that the story finally is told where, in many respects, it began.

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