A painful history connects two different coastlines, more than 4,500 miles apart.
Off the coast of Sierra Leone, remnants of a British slave fort still stand on Bunce Island. Many of the captive Africans who stepped onto slave ships from the island's stone jetty took their first steps on American soil in Charleston.
In the first official international visit for the soon-to-be-built museum, leaders from Charleston's International African American Museum traveled to Sierra Leone this month. That trip included a visit to Bunce Island.
"I finally was able to see and experience what we've been talking about for so long," said IAAM CEO Michael Moore.
As the long-anticipated museum approaches its groundbreaking this year, connections are being formed here in Charleston, around the country and across the Atlantic.
The trip helped underscore why there is an international component to the museum's mission, he said, and confirmed what he's said to people in Charleston and beyond about the need to connect the city's story with places like Sierra Leone.
The country of about 7.6 million people on the West African coast is also where Moore was able to trace his ancestry through DNA testing. Beyond the professional scope of the trip, he said, it felt like a homecoming.
In one town, the community welcomed him as a family member, gave him clothing and named him.
"It was overwhelming in every conceivable way," Moore said.
That's a feeling that Moore and IAAM organizers hope visitors will have, in some way, at the museum. It can be a "place of pilgrimage," Moore said, where African-Americans — particularly young people — connect with their ancestors' stories.
A transatlantic connection
Tens of thousands of enslaved Africans came through Bunce Island starting in the late 17th century. The island's principal owner forged ties with a wealthy Charleston rice planter, and the island quickly became linked to the Lowcountry through the trading of slaves.
Because of the deep knowledge of rice cultivation in Sierra Leone, advertisements in South Carolina would specifically mention Bunce Island by name, signaling that those slaves had that knowledge and skill.
The island and the fort's remains are protected under Sierra Leone's Ministry of Tourism and Monuments and Relics Commission. There is an accelerated movement now to preserve it, Moore said.
The IAAM has discussed an artifact exchange with Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, which could include stones from a jetty on Bunce Island. Those stones would represent enslaved Africans' last steps on the continent.
The idea, Moore said, would be to display those stones in a way that visitors could reach out and touch them, and, in that connection, "activate a historic relationship."
In turn, the museum may bring back some dirt from the museum grounds on Charleston Harbor, which is the former site of Gadsden's Wharf, one of the most critical and brutal sites for the slave trade.
A moving finish line
The road to the IAAM has been a long one — former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley first announced the project in 2000 — and it has, in those nearly two decades, stretched longer at times when the finish line seemed in reach.
In August, the museum celebrated reaching its $75 million fundraising goal. But in December, Moore and Riley announced that building the museum would cost at least $10 million more than expected, largely due to inflation and the effects of tariffs.
The building's design requires a large amount of steel, making it particularly vulnerable to tariffs. The museum is elevated off the ground, supported by 18 pillars.
At the most recent IAAM board meeting in February, Riley told members that about $7.9 million of those additional funds had been raised, but those costs could also end up being “somewhat more than $10 million.”
Moore said they still plan to break ground sometime this year, but the first shovel of dirt can't be moved until all the funds to build have been collected.
Once built, the project is expected to generate significant tourism activity. The College of Charleston has estimated the museum will have a $129 million annual impact.
A growing team
Right now, the IAAM staff works out of a house on Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston. From the building’s front step, Emanuel AME Church’s steeple towers across the street. Charleston’s monument to John C. Calhoun can be seen to the left, through the tops of trees in Marion Square.
Much of the museum’s core team of nine members joined the staff within the past year.
The museum’s curator, Joy Bivins, and its director of education and engagement, Brenda Tindal, both joined the staff over the summer. Bivins moved from Chicago, where she was the director of curatorial affairs at the Chicago History Museum. Before joining the IAAM, Tindal was the director of education at the Detroit Historical Society.
The museum’s chief operating officer, Beaufort native Elijah Heyward, was brought on in August. Rev. DeMett E. Jenkins, who grew up in Charleston and received her Master of Divinity at Virginia Union University, also joined the staff in the last year as the director of faith-based education.
Moore said they expect to hire about 10 more staff members before the end of the calendar year. A couple of job openings are listed on the museum's website now, including management positions for public relations and the museum's membership program.
Almost 2,000 square feet of office and meeting space at the Charleston Maritime Center, the museum site's neighbor, is now available for the staff to use as it expands. Charleston City Council approved a lease in January that gives them use of the offices for $3,000 a month.
A 'reasonable challenge'
As many as 30 different scholars have helped plan the IAAM's galleries, said Bernard Powers, an IAAM board member and the director of the recently formed Center for the Study of Slavery at the College of Charleston.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.; the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati; the national history museum in Barbados; and the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England, are among the institutions that have worked with and advised the IAAM during this process, Powers said.
Over the past couple years, several small groups of scholars have selected the specific stories and details to be used in the museum.
Right now, he said, gallery-specific experts are going through the details of each display. For example, experts on rice culture are combing through the details of the "Carolina Gold" gallery.
Bivins says curators like her have the best jobs, "both practical and theoretical." These days, she's deep in the editing process for the museum galleries' displays.
She's reading the text, looking at the photos, assessing the spacing. Once she has suggestions, she sends them back to the design team. At the most recent board meeting, she showed an example of one of those panels, her handwriting all over the page.
"It's a negotiation," she said.
They want to make sure the text is not just accurate, but engaging, the photos not only appropriate, but representative.
Though museum leaders have said that the IAAM will not be a "collecting museum," Bivins said the museum still plans to acquire a permanent collection of artifacts.
The IAAM intends to display those artifacts at all times but will not have a separate storage facility for artifacts, she said.
Finding, collecting and preparing those artifacts will be "a reasonable challenge," Bivins said. The museum's international scope opens up more possibilities for artifact selection but can also complicate that acquisition process.
"It's hardest to find your star objects," Bivins said. At this point, she said, they're still searching.
A message to share
With local, national and international aims, the museum's staff and board have continued to spread word about the project. Beyond large-scale fundraising, that also includes building the museum's membership program.
In 2017, the museum had just 367 members. Membership grew to 1,388 last year, Heyward said. Anyone who purchases a membership before the museum opens is considered a charter member.
Memberships, which start at $25, are valid for one year, he said.
As CEO, Moore has also been making more public appearances to talk about the museum. In December, he appeared on popular syndicated talk show "The Breakfast Club."
The show features New York City radio personalities DJ Envy, Angela Yee and Charlamagne Tha God who interview guests, talk about headlines and play hip-hop and R&B music.
Recently, he spoke with actor Samuel L. Jackson, who is producing a six-part documentary series about the international slave trade. Jackson, a licensed scuba diver, is documenting the story of slavery through underwater archaeology.
They filmed for a day here in Charleston, Moore said, and shot a scene on Charleston Harbor talking about Robert Smalls, Moore's great-great-grandfather.
In 1862, Smalls escaped slavery by successfully taking command of a Confederate ship in Charleston Harbor, saving his family and several others. He later became a captain in the Union army and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
A chance to engage
As the museums's education directors, Tindal and Jenkins both have plans to ramp up opportunities for local participation this year.
Tindal recently led the first of the museum staff's four-part Common Ground series, a collection of "fireside chats" and Q&A sessions, at the main branch of the Charleston County Public Library. Moore was the featured speaker, but subsequent talks will highlight other members of the core staff.
The talks are meant to be a chance to share concerns, suggestions and questions and get to know the IAAM leaders on a more personal level, Tindal said.
"We're looking for an opportunity to more authentically engage," she said.
The IAAM also hopes to build on local relationships with groups and attractions in the coming months, like the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and the museums, plantations and other sites telling African-American stories in the Charleston area.
In the spring, Explore Charleston is launching a new website, "Voices: Stories of Change," a visitor-directed platform focusing on the area's African-American history and culture.
"While the site is not being developed because of the museum, there will be significant cross-promotion," said Helen Hill, Explore Charleston's CEO.
Efforts to build these relationships now, before a physical museum exists, translate to the museum's aim of being a "hub" Moore said, to connect people, places and stories.