City to dig for signs of Gadsden's Wharf on International African American Museum site

The city of Charleston has purchased a 1.23-acre site, between Dockside condominiums (left) and the Charleston Maritime Center (behind trees, at right), as the site for the new International African American Museum.

Archeologists in the next few weeks will dig trenches on the new waterfront site of the International African American Museum, hoping to find remnants of the former Gadsden's Wharf, which was built in 1767 and accepted slave ships from Africa.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley announced the archeological survey Wednesday at the museum board's quarterly meeting. He doesn't know exactly when the work will begin, he said, but it will be sometime in the next few weeks. And he's not yet sure how much it will cost, but he's not expecting a hefty price tag because the project isn't a long-term or complex one.

The city previously had planned to build the museum on land it owns on the corner of Calhoun and Concord streets. But Riley said city leaders learned later that the nearby, waterfront site was on the former Gadsden's Wharf, which was a more historically appropriate location for the building. The new site also provides a view of the harbor, through which the slave ships passed on their way to the wharf.

According to a report by museum project consultant Robert Macdonald, Gadsden's Wharf, an 840-foot quay and accompanying warehouse, was at one time the largest wharf in North America.

The wharf originally was built to serve the South Carolina rice trade, but in the three years before the U.S. Congress outlawed the international slave trade on Dec. 31, 1807, it become the epicenter of a desperate rush to import African slaves for South Carolina rice and cotton plantations as well as cotton and sugar cane plantations in the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.

Riley said there are many layers of fill over the former wharf. But archeologist will document what they find there. "If we find remnants of the wharf, like timbers, we will collect pieces for an exhibit."

Macdonald also told the board that a group of project consultants met earlier this week to begin discussing the design of the building and the kind of programming that might take place there.

The museum will have interactive program components, he said, such as a family history center, where people who are descendents of slaves can get advice about genealogy. "This program isn't going to be static. It's going to be alive," he said.

Felicia Easterlin, the museum's program manager, said she and the mayor have been meeting with representatives from several large foundations, laying the groundwork for a fundraising campaign.

The city must raise the $75 million required for the 43,500-square-foot building.

So far, the city and Charleston County each have agreed to contribute $12.5 million.

Riley hopes the state eventually will contribute $25 million, but in its most recent session, the Legislature contributed $7 million.

The city also must raise $25 million from private sources. Riley said the city recently received a commitment for a $1 million donation from a donor who wants to remain anonymous.

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.