Will the museum be built? African American museum one of many Charleston area budget priorities

Robert Macdonald explains that where he is standing on Concord Street, at Calhoun, is where Gadsden's Wharf once was. The vacant lot behind him is the proposed site for the African American Museum.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has long had a vision to tell the story of how generations of African-Americans made their way onto these shores.

As he sees it, the International African American Museum would be a $75 million, some 43,500-square-foot showcase of black culture offered in a city that Riley and others say has a unique historical and geographic opportunity to present.

Some 40 percent of all the enslaved Africans who came to North America entered through the port of Charleston, meaning millions of Americans can trace their lineage to the slave ships that landed here.

But there remains a problem in telling that story: Money.

At the end of his four-decade-long career at Charleston's helm, Riley is leading an ambitious undertaking that hinges on events outside of his control, asking the S.C. Legislature to provide $25 million, or one-third of the museum's total cost.

The request comes as other demands are competing for the state's limited resources.

As the South Carolina Senate moves toward debating its version of the budget, Riley has asked lawmakers to provide funding in two installments of $12.5 million, to come this year and next.

While the mayor is confident he can get the money approved, he also is saying he can be flexible, suggesting that breaking up the allotment over three years is doable, too.

That would mean going past Riley's final days in office, which will end after the municipal election of November 2015 and a new mayor takes over.

"This isn't tied to my time as mayor at all," he said. "This is a project I'll work on, one way or another, as long as I'm alive."

Without state support, the museum's future is uncertain.

That begs the question: Will it happen?

Museums dedicated to black contributions in American history have opened with increased frequency in recent years as opportunities grow to tell stories that were long-ignored or sometimes segregated into separate spaces in larger museums.

Cincinnati has the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Memphis, Tenn., has the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. And in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian's showcase National Museum of African American History and Culture is expected to be completed by 2016 at a cost of $500 million.

The Washington, D.C., site already is laying claim to important items for its collection. That includes some from South Carolina, where a slave cabin at Point of Pines plantation on Edisto Island recently was dismantled to be reassembled for display at the national museum.

Beyond these examples, dozens of other destinations highlight events from the Civil Rights era, the abuses of slavery (Charleston's Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street, for example), the black migration north and the individual achievements of those who were part of decades of struggle.

It's become big business.

Connie Dyson, spokeswoman for the Lorraine museum site in Memphis, said attendance there exceeded expectations in 2008 and 2009 with the 40th anniversary commemoration of King's death on April 4, 2008, and with the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president.

But there are failures as well, most notably the effort launched by former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder to create a national slavery museum in Fredericksburg. It suffered through 12 years of legal wrangling, bankruptcy and liabilities, according to media accounts. Still, the successes far outweigh the setbacks. Today, the Association of African American Museums says there are more than 300 African American-themed museums and sites operating in the country.

The museum association's president, Samuel W. Black, said he's encouraged by what he's heard of the Charleston efforts so far, pointing to the Avery Research Center in Charleston and the Penn Center on St. Helena Island as other notable learning destinations in South Carolina.

Assembling collections for Charleston's site won't be a problem, Black said. "The public will scour through basements" wanting to contribute, he said.

The biggest hurdle really is the fundraising, said Black, who is also director of African American programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.

Riley first mentioned his vision for a Charleston museum near the S.C. Aquarium, which was built in part with state funding, when he was sworn into office again in January 2000.

"Charleston is a city that has always accepted the responsibility of preserving and presenting its history," he said at the time, "(but) there is one aspect of Charleston's history that we have been quiet about presenting. It is the history of African Americans - their life and role in our city and in the development of our country."

Since then, the cost and scope has evolved.

In February 2005, The Post and Courier reported on a divisive City Council meeting where the members feuded over whether to give $250,000 to what was then forecast as a $60 million museum project, up from an estimated $40 million just five years prior.

Naysayers on council said it wouldn't work. "There already are a number of African-American museums in other cities," then-Councilman Henry Fishburne said. "I don't think a large one here in Charleston would be economically viable." City Council approved the measure in an 8-3 vote.

At the time, Riley also said public taxpayer money would not be the primary source to build it. The public funding had been one of the more controversial aspects of the S.C. Aquarium - even though part of it was approved by city voters in a bond referendum. The aquarium opened in 2000 at a cost of about $69 million ($9.5 million from the state).

"Overwhelmingly, the money will have to come from the private sector," Riley said then of the museum project.

The greater dependence on public dollars represents a shift as the size and direction better came into focus, Riley said this month.

Last fall, the mayor sought to kick-start the project. This time, City Council was fully on his side.

City Council - and a friendly Charleston County Council - each agreed to provide $12.5 million each ($25 million total) toward construction. Coupled with the $25 million requested from the state and the final $25 million to be raised from private sources, that's $75 million, with $3 million of that set aside as an endowment.

Currently, the private money collected outside of what Riley said is operational money is considered to be at zero. He plans to concentrate on that fundraising later this year. Coming up with the $50 million in public money would make his pitch more appealing to foundations, corporations and others.

Research recently has focused on the fact that near the proposed museum's site stood Gadsden's Wharf - owned by Revolutionary War patriot Christopher Gadsden. Historians say the 1760s-era quay was a site of major maritime activity, running hundreds of feet in length beneath the current Concord Street.

Robert R. Macdonald, a researcher on Charleston's project, said the wharf was the largest in North America and played a significant "epicenter" role including when the slave trade was reopened between 1803 and 1807, creating a rush to bring in as many slaves - into the tens of thousands - as possible.

Macdonald described the wharf's activity as a place of human misery for the African men, women and children who arrived there after weeks at sea to be sold or confined in nearby warehouses. Disease was rampant. Deaths were common. Fines were enacted for bodies tossed into waterways. Many died, according to Macdonald's research.

"This is actually the equivalent for African Americans of Ellis Island," Macdonald said. "Charleston was the major slave port in America."

The museum, across from the S.C Aquarium at the intersection of Calhoun and Concord streets, is envisioned as a two-story building. It would include interactive exhibits and multimedia presentations of the Gullah Geechee community; African origins; spiritual life, music, and food; African-American literature; the era of Jim Crow; and other educational offerings, according to the museum's literature.

Another planned feature is a "Family History Center" where individuals and families can explore their own personal backgrounds through DNA testing and analysis and research assisted by family history counselors, according to the museum's media materials.

The museum also would serve as a gateway to other sites, such as Magnolia Plantation, Middleton Place, the Avery and Penn centers, among others.

The building is being designed by the Moody Nolan architectural firm of Columbus, Ohio. Exhibits would be designed by Ralph Applebaum and Associates, whose credits include the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

Riley anticipates 165,000 visitors a year at an adult ticket price of $15. The local economic impact is forecast at $31 million annually, the city says.

In tandem with the effort, the National Park Service is being called on to reinterpret Liberty Square by the Fort Sumter Visitors Center to explain the story of Gadsden's Wharf, including adding a walking pier jutting out into the harbor.

Riley said he realizes he was late in submitting his $25 million request into this year's 2014 legislative budgeting process. But since the start of the year, his lobbying efforts have included talks with lawmakers and a meeting with Gov. Nikki Haley. He also said he has received support from S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt on the project. Contacted earlier this month, Hitt's spokeswoman Allison Skipper said the Commerce Department is not formally involved in the effort and that the secretary "does not take a public position on policy matters" involving the Legislature.

As far as securing Statehouse money, Riley was able to get budget writers in the House to commit $250,000 to the effort as a line item that could be increased if the Senate wants to.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, said he is a staunch advocate for the museum because of its ties to history, tourism and economic development that would benefit the entire state. "It's not just (for) Charleston," he said.

But Courson also realizes that demands for state money, especially for areas such as higher education, are great. If lawmakers decide to help fund the museum, he said, a four-year commitment "might be more reasonable."

Calls to state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, were not returned.

Courson on Friday gave a less-than-optimistic view, saying a direct appropriation would be "very difficult" and that it might have to be addressed as a "wish list" item.

Riley said he's met with a positive response just about everywhere he goes to discuss the museum, ranging from those who support telling Charleston's history, to how it might give a more favorable image of South Carolina to those outside the state. He noted supporters include Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's African American history museum, who is on the IAAM's national advisory board.

The ideal timetable would be to begin construction in January 2016 and open in January 2018 - if the money comes through.

A potential stumbling block is that this is an election year.

Still, Riley contends the time is right and the museum would provide a chance to tell a story that so far has been incompletely presented.

"There is a growing interest or thirst to understand more about this part of American history, by all Americans."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551