Lonnie Bunch spent more than a decade bringing the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture to fruition, and now he's providing moral support to Joe Riley as Charleston's former mayor works to realize his vision for the International African American Museum.
The two recently spent a morning together walking the proposed museum's site, the former Gadsden's Wharf, where an estimated 100,000 enslaved Africans were imported into the American South.
Then they gathered inside the IAAM's Calhoun Street office to review details over its design and exhibits.
But they also spent time simply catching up on a friendship that began around 2005 when Bunch took the reins of the Washington, D.C., Smithsonian project — about five years after Riley first floated the idea for an African-American museum here.
"The first conversations were about people's fear — fear that the national museum might make you not need to do this museum," Bunch said. "My argument has always been there is something powerful about letting a thousand flowers bloom."
While the Smithsonian features several historic artifacts plucked from South Carolina's Lowcountry, the vision for the IAAM is different — and far more focused on the historic site on which it will be built. The IAAM also will tell the story of black America through a South Carolina lens.
"Lonnie told me it's important that the museum is done in Charleston for us up on the (Washington) Mall," Riley said, because if the Smithsonian's story is not told here, then there may be a sense it's not important.
"There's a structural defect in America in that we do not know this history," Riley said. "What Lonnie spent his life doing in Washington and other places and what we will do here is help remove that structural defect and bind us together in that we know this history."
Bunch said complaining that there may be too many African-American museums is akin to someone complaining that there are too many preserved Civil War battlefields — a complaint he has never heard.
Those words, along with Bunch's advice and encouragement for Charleston's museum, have helped buoy Riley as he faces setbacks, including the Legislature's recent decision to delay its next sum of state money.
"When you work on something hard, a big initiative, and I think this is the most important work of my life, this museum ... there are hurdles and challenges," Riley said. "You should stop and say, 'Is this the right thing? Is this really that important?' Every time I would come to that, just to look at it and mentally consider it, emotionally consider it, I would resolve that it is."
Riley said his conversations with Bunch "were just a great boost to me."
While the new $540 million Smithsonian museum is more successful than most, Bunch noted that its creation was far from a cake walk.
"How do you do this for 12 years?" he said. "I think on the one hand, you have to be dumb enough not to be smart enough to know how hard this is."
Also important are having a strong vision of what the museum can be but also a nimbleness to accept the advice of others and be willing to make corrections and changes along the way "but never lose sight of what you really believe." In the background, there's always the paramount challenge of fundraising.
"At 8 o'clock in the morning, I have the best job in America," Bunch said. "At 2 o'clock in the morning, it's the dumbest thing I've ever done.
"But then 8 a.m. comes around again."