Charleston’s proposed African American Museum effort re-energized

Mayor Joe Riley held a press conference at Liberty Square on Wednesday to discuss the next phase for the International African American Museum in Charleston. Behind him (from left) are Wilbur Johnson of the IAAM Board, and City Council members William Dudley Gregorie and Keith Waring.

A pier will jut out into the harbor, where a stone brought from Africa will invite a visitor’s touch.

Inside the museum, the stories of black influence in America will be told through slavery, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the civil rights era and beyond.

And if the timetable stays to schedule, the International African American Museum will be open to the public in 2018.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley on Wednesday announced a kick-start to the project, saying the time is right to ramp up pursuit of the much-needed public and private dollars to construct the now-$75 million museum.

“Everyone understand the time has come,” Riley said during a press conference outside the Fort Sumter tour boat departure point.

Charleston has a unique and historic responsibility to accurately tell the story of black migration to America, he said, since records indicate 40 percent of all enslaved Africans who came to North America entered through the port of Charleston.

“Africans coming here, and African-Americans shaping our country,” Riley said of the museum’s theme. “For this is of course a national story.”

The 42,300-square-foot building is scheduled to go on land across from the S.C. Aquarium that’s adjacent to the parking garage that supports the various tourist sites on the Cooper River. But the building funds are still far from being in hand.

The proposed cost break down is: $12.5 million coming from Charleston City Council; $12.5 million coming from Charleston County; $25 million from the S.C. General Assembly, and the remaining $25 million to be raised from private donations.

County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor was at Wednesday’s press conference and supports the county taking part. The request will go on the body’s agenda in November, he said.

Riley said he was optimistic that the Legislature would come through with its portion of the cost. He plans to bill the museum as a tourism draw that would bring up to $30 million annually to the local economy, and millions more to the state.

At $75 million, the cost for the project has grown significantly over the last decade (from around $60 million in 2005) as the museum’s size and scope changed and the historical record was investigated.

Funding efforts also proved lackluster, and previous members of City Council questioned its viability, while initial hopes were to have the museum open by 2007.

The current City Council membership is more supportive, unanimously voting this week to back the city’s $12.5 million allocation through revenue bonds.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Councilman Blake Hallman said the museum will help balance out the region’s historical telling through “the story of how this city, how Charleston was made.”

Councilman Keith Waring said that in addition to telling the story of black contributions, the museum would invite additional markets of tourism “that aren’t coming today.”

One revelation that will be added to the local story and layout is that the area around where the museum, tour boat facility and aquarium currently operate was once near the colonial period Gadsden’s Wharf, where slave ships tied up and tens of thousands of slaves were sold.

Beyond the slave route, Wilbur Johnson, chairman of the IAAM board, said the museum will provide an additional opportunity to showcase black contributions to culture, architecture and commerce, such as the introduction of rice that changed the state’s early economy.

Much of the museum planning has been in the works for some time. Key figures who will help create the site include the architectural firms of Moody Nolan, of Columbus, Ohio, and Antoine Predock of Albuquerque, N.M.

The exhibits will be designed by Ralph Applebaum and Associates, whose credits include the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and the new U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. If all goes to plan, construction would begin in late 2015 or early 2016.

Riley said the museum comes at a time when the nation remains eager to learn more about its past, including black history, parts of which remain unwritten, he said, “and in many respects, untold.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.