Strong feelings about how to tell a painful story

Charleston's planned International African American Museum will be built on the site where Gadsden's Wharf once stood; a dock where an estimated 100,000 slaves where brought to Charleston. Leroy Burnell/Staff 11/21/2014

In a meeting room overlooking the spot where an estimated 100,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Charleston, it was clear Tuesday that the telling of that painful tale in a planned $75 million museum will be difficult.

As the long-planned International African American Museum moves closer to becoming a reality, some community members complained that they are being denied a role in telling the stories of their city and their ancestors.

“We need to ask the basic question of, who is benefitting from this effort and who has the right to tell the story,” said Charleston native and former college professor Wilmont Fraser. “I have reservations about this project — serious reservations.”

His comments and others followed a presentation of general plans for programming at the museum, which will include interactive exhibits and genealogy resources. The museum will take a fresh look at “all the things that have become associated with the forced arrival of Africans in this country,” said Board President Wilbur Johnson.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley proposed the museum 15 years ago, and progress has been slow. Now that the city, Charleston County, and the state have committed $30 million to the project it’s picked up speed, and architectural plans for the 43,500-square-foot building are to be presented next month.

Millicent Brown, who was among the first black children to integrate South Carolina schools and holds a doctorate in U.S. history, said she agreed with Fraser’s concerns. She said the museum’s board should look for ways to involve local people in the telling of their own stories.

“The same criticisms seems to arise, and they seem to fall on deaf ears,” Brown said.

Another audience member took issue with Program Committee member Bob Macdonald’s repeated comparison of Gadsden’s Wharf to Ellis Island in New York, “in its own, unique way.”

Millions of black Americans could potentially trace their ancestors to Gadsden’s Wharf, the largest dock in the nation during it’s time, when Charleston was the nation’s fourth-largest city and a hub of the transatlantic slave trade.

“Five slave ships could line up there, end to end,” said Macdonald.

Bernard Powers, from the College of Charleston History Department, chairs the IAAM Program Committee and said that building the museum at the site of Gadsden’s Wharf is “really going to improve the story that’s going to be told on that site.”

The location is between the Charleston Maritime Center and the Dockside condominiums, on the harbor. Construction is hoped for by 2017, although there’s much money yet to be raised.

Meanwhile, the debates about what stories should be told by the museum, and how, are just starting.

“We’ve not worked out the details of all of this,” said Powers, who several times described the museum’s programming as something that still needs to be figured out.

The audience of about 60 people was full of suggestions. One man said the museum must be sure to include Muslims. Another, Robert “King David” Ross, said the museum should look at black history going back to the beginning.

“We were the first human beings on the planet,” said Ross, who headwear was suggestive of ancient Egypt.

Local community activist Fouche’na Sheppard told the board members that she should personally be involved in the project.

“People who were born and bred in Charleston know the history,” she said.

Powers said the board welcomes local involvement, but there’s not room on the board for everyone.

“The next step will be refining these ideas some more, and finding a way to bring more people to the table,” he said.

Riley proposed the museum during his State of the City address in 2000, the same year the South Carolina Aquarium opened near the proposed museum location, at the end of Calhoun Street on the harbor.

In the 15 years that followed, the location has changed, the price tag has grown from the original $40 million estimate to $75 million, and there’s been little success in raising private donations. Just $1 million has been raised privately.

Previously seen as a museum that would be financed with donated money — “Overwhelmingly, the money will have to come from the private sector,” Riley said in 2005 — current plans call for $50 million in city, county and state funds and $25 million to be raised from donations.

The mayor said he works on the museum project every day, including soliciting donations, and will “as long as I’m breathing.”

Reach David Slade at 937-5552