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With African American Museum connection, Charleston and Freetown become sister cities

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IAAM_Bunce Island (copy)

This stone jetty on Bunce Island is where tens of thousands of captive Africans took their last steps before boarding slave ships to the United States. IAAM leaders visited the island during their trip to Freetown, Sierra Leone, earlier this year. Provided/IAAM. 

Charleston and Freetown, Sierra Leone, signed a sister cities partnership Tuesday, furthering a relationship that's been developing between the capital city and the soon-to-be-built International African American Museum.  

The connections between Charleston and Freetown are rooted in the transatlantic slave trade, when Bunce Island, just off Sierra Leone's coastline, became a primary spot where captive people boarded slave ships bound for South Carolina.

Charleston's forthcoming museum, which is likely to break ground this fall, will be built on a portion of what was once Gadsden's Wharf, a site where many of the same enslaved people who departed from Bunce Island first stepped on American soil. 

"There are really extraordinary ties between our two cities," said IAAM CEO Michael Boulware Moore, who along with the museum's curator and education director, traveled to Sierra Leone earlier this year. 

During their visit, they toured the remains of a British slave fort on Bunce Island, met with local officials and discussed possible collaborations between the city and the museum. 

That trip, according to Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, was what lead to the sister city relationship.

The effort to become sister cities with a city in western Africa goes back farther, said Neita Wiese, the president and CEO of Charleston Sister Cities International. Wiese first suggested such a partnership in early 2017. 

Wiese, Tecklenburg, IAAM leaders and Freetown Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr participated in a signing ceremony in the City Council Chambers Tuesday. 

Becoming sister cities was "significant on so many levels," said Aki-Sawyerr, who is visiting Charleston for the first time this week.

Aki-Sawyerr's ancestors were freed slaves who came to Sierra Leone by way of Nova Scotia. The "chances are high," she said, that they started their journey in Charleston. 

She also noted the connection that the Charleston area and Freetown share in their deep knowledge of rice cultivation, one that was brought to the Lowcountry by enslaved people from western Africa. 

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During their conversations Tuesday, Aki-Sawyerr and Tecklenburg discussed some common challenges in the cities, like flood mitigation, and possible educational partnerships. 

Tecklenburg said he hoped the sister city relationship would bring more attention to the "sometimes untold" stories that connect the coastal cities. 

The museum has discussed a possible artifact exchange with Sierra Leone, which could include stones from a jetty on Bunce Island. In return, the museum could give dirt from the museum grounds on Charleston Harbor as a  representation of the former Gadsden's Wharf. 

Aki-Sawyerr visited the future museum site with Moore and other members of the museum staff this week. Moore compared the experience to his own on Bunce Island's jetty. 

"For her to be able to have that same experience, but in reverse...It's just a powerful relationship," Moore said. 

The partnership with Freetown marks Charleston's fourth official sister city relationship.

Charleston Sister Cities International signed its first partnership in 2016 with Panama City, Panama. The group also recognizes Charleston's sister city relationship with Spoleto, Italy which was established more than a decade ago. 

Earlier this year, Charleston became sister cities with Speightstown, Barbados, a coastal town in the island nation. 

Charleston's City Council is scheduled to review a construction contract for the IAAM next Tuesday. If passed, the approval will be one of the final steps before organizers start building the museum, which has been in the works for nearly 20 years. 

Moore, who has been the project's first and only CEO, announced last month that he would step down from the role in early August, just a couple months before museum officials hope to break ground. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and aerospace. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter and co-hosts the weekly podcast Understand SC.

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