Despite encountering the shameful and distressing story of slavery, visitors will leave the International African American Museum feeling uplifted, the institution’s new president said.
Michael Moore, who started work last month as the planned museum’s first president and chief executive officer, said he and others not only are working to raise money to construct the building but also are discussing what programming will happen inside of it.
The museum will deal with difficult content, Moore said, “but it won’t leave you there.” It also will tell the story of resiliency of black people who arrived as slaves and their descendents. “It’s important to me that people walk through that museum and feel uplifted,” he said.
Moore, who grew up in Boston, is a business executive who has worked for global corporations and is the great-great-grandson of Robert Smalls.
Smalls was an enslaved African who in 1862 took command of a Confederate ship in the Charleston Harbor, sailed it past five Confederate forts, into the Atlantic Ocean and then turned it over to Union forces. He then became a captain in the Union Army, and after the Civil War, he was elected to both houses of the state Legislature and to Congress.
The rectangular museum building will be raised on pillars and will have an outdoor memorial on the ground, Moore said. He envisions the memorial as a powerful starting point for a visit to the museum.
That’s especially true because the museum will sit on the site of the former Gadsden’s Wharf, where more than 100,000 slaves were brought into the country in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Moore said he thinks the building’s site will contribute to its success. “It’s visceral in my gut,” he said of his experience standing on the site and looking out towards the Charleston Harbor.
Moore said about 80 percent of black people in the United States can trace their roots to one of the enslaved people who took their first steps in this country on Gadsden’s Wharf.
After the memorial, visitors will climb stairs in the center of the rectangular building to enter.
The front of the building, which is lined with windows and has a view of the Cooper River and the harbor, will house the “Atlantic Connection,” which will include exhibits and educational programs about Africa.
The core of the building will include various permanent and travelling exhibits.
And the back section will house a “Family History Center,” where people can explore their own roots.
The museum has hired Toni Carrier, one of the country’s top genealogists, as a consultant on that section, Moore said.
Still, some native scholars, such as activist and educator Millicent Brown, have raised concerns about the programming and about their voices not being sought during the museum’s planning.
Brown, professor emeritus of history at Claflin University and a Charleston native who was among the first few to integrate the public schools, said she doesn’t think indigenous scholars are being included in the conversation about what the museum should include.
“If you are going to have an African-American museum, you need to make sure the historical analysis includes the voices of those whose history it is,” she said.
For instance, she said, she’s not sure the black community wants “the story of uplift” planned for the museum, adding, “Why not show the privilege of the 18th Century and how it’s continued in the 21st Century?”
Is the museum going to be a critique of the ongoing economic gap, she asked, “or is it going to be about the people and they can sing and they can cook?”
Ade Ofunniyin is an adjunct professor of anthropology and African American studies at the College of Charleston and founder of The Gullah Society. He agreed with Brown’s concerns.
“This is another Joe Riley event,” said Ofunniyin, who is the grandson of the late Philip Simmons, Charleston’s legendary 20th century blacksmith.
“That’s problematic,” Ofunniyin said of the museum’s programming. “There’s no community ownership of this.”
Former Mayor Joe Riley said local voices have been included in conversations about the museum. Artist Jonathan Green and former state Rep. Lucille Whipper, a stateswoman and educator, serve on the board. And there will continue to be opportunities for input on programming, he said.
Riley said he and Moore continue to work on raising money for the project. So far, $39 million has been raised.
Riley hopes to bring in the $75 million needed for construction by the spring of 2017. It’s a self-imposed deadline, he said, and he isn’t going to give up on the project if he doesn’t make it.
But, if there is a big delay in raising the money, the cost of construction, and the project, will increase, he said.
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.