When museum leaders officially break ground on Charleston's International African American Museum later this week, the much-anticipated project will have about $100 million from more than 2,000 donors behind it.
The fundraising effort involved buy-in from local government, the state of South Carolina and organizations that stretch from the Lowcountry to places as far away as Salt Lake City.
The process took around a year longer and millions more than initially anticipated, after rising construction costs bumped the total amount needed from $75 million closer to $100 million.
And even though officials break ground on the museum Friday, the fundraising hasn't stopped.
Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is on the front lines of the capital campaign. He said the goal is to raise about $4 million more for the second phase of construction, which will include equipment, furnishings and the exhibits themselves.
All of that was factored into the about $96 million that's on-hand for the museum's creation, but Riley said the extra funds would be there to cover possible costs from inflation.
Fundraising for the IAAM became Riley's full-time gig after the longtime mayor served his last term, which ended in January 2016. In the past three years alone, he said museum organizers have made more than 2,100 phone calls and held 576 meetings with potential donors.
Many of those meetings then led to formal proposals, which ranged anywhere from 12 to 146 pages each, Riley said.
Riley's partner in much of that work was Michael Boulware Moore, the IAAM's first president and CEO. Moore, who joined the staff in 2016, stepped down from the role in early August. When the departure was announced, Riley highlighted Moore's ability to communicate the museum’s story with potential donors.
“What made getting Michael so fortunate was his personal connection,” Riley said.
Moore is a great-great grandson of Robert Smalls, an enslaved South Carolina man who sailed to freedom by stealing a Confederate ship in Charleston Harbor and later became one of the first African Americans elected to Congress.
Though much of the fundraising work has been done in the last several years, the effort to build the museum started almost two decades ago.
Riley first mentioned the idea publicly in a speech he gave after being sworn in for his seventh term as Charleston's mayor in early 2000.
"Charleston is a city that has always accepted the responsibility of preserving and presenting its history, (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," Riley was quoted as saying in The Post and Courier.
At the time, there were few specifics. No site was identified, and Riley even said that it was possible the project might not be built on the peninsula.
It wasn't until 14 years later that museum leaders would decide on the current site, a waterfront parcel next to Charleston's Maritime Center. The location gave a new gravity to the project, since it was once part of Gadsden's Wharf, a major port of entry for enslaved Africans in the United States.
When Riley first mapped out a financial plan for the museum, he anticipated a three-way split of $25 million each from local, state and private funds. The public money came through, but the scale tipped farther in the way of private funds as the total amount needed climbed.
The museum reached a milestone last August when it passed the $75 million threshold, the amount that Riley and other museum leaders thought would be enough to build.
But by December, they'd found that rising construction costs, including higher prices for steel, had driven up projected expenses enough that at least another $10 million — and likely more — was needed.
A steady stream of big ticket donations followed in the months after: a $2 million pledge from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in February, $1 million from Susu and George Dean Johnson Jr. of Spartanburg in March and $1.5 million from the New York-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in April.
Two of the largest private donations the museum has received were also given this year, $2.5 million each from SCE&G buyer Dominion Energy and Charlotte-based steelmaker Nucor Corp., which has a mill in Berkeley County.
Most recently, oil and gas giant BP, which operates a petrochemical plant on the Cooper River, gave $1 million this summer, and North Charleston became the first city aside from Charleston to give a gift with its $1 million pledge in August.
The largest private donation to the IAAM was a $10 million grant gifted in the fall of 2017 from the Lilly Endowment, a foundation headquartered in Indianapolis.
In addition to the funds for the museum's creation and operation, another $7 million has been set aside for the museum's endowment, said Ginny Deerin, major gifts officer at the IAAM.
In all, the museum has been funded by 2,008 contributors. Of those, Riley said, more than half — about 1,200 of them — were donations of $100 or less, something which Riley said their team sees a sign of "the broad base of support in the community."