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One year after breaking ground, Charleston’s African American Museum taking shape

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The International African American Museum (right) under construction on Oct. 19, 2020. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

The capital is raised and construction is well underway. The International African American Museum, located on a waterfront site that once was Charleston’s major entry point for the transatlantic slave trade, is set to open during the first part of 2022.

Now, the project is turning a corner. Its small staff, still missing a full-time permanent executive director, can think less about the structure itself — and raising the money to build it — and more about what will happen inside the museum.

Its physical structure is taking shape and plans are being laid to host temporary exhibitions, run a genealogy program and root the museum’s developing narrative in the ongoing freedom struggle. But some in the Charleston community are wondering how the museum might collaborate with other institutions, and how it will engage the public, including Black residents in the Lowcountry who say they have been excluded from the planning process.

Creating a new museum from scratch always is a heavy lift that requires years of planning, an enormous fundraising effort and a honed mission. Add in economic uncertainty and, now, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the enterprise becomes even more challenging.

The IAAM’s board and staff are striving to ensure the museum has the resources and funding it needs so that its opening might be a cultural touchpoint for the city and remain an important resource for the long haul.

But it is no easy feat.

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Construction continues on the International African American Museum. As of Oct. 15, the basic structure was nearly closed in. The next step was to add the brick facade. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

A building takes shape

One year ago on Oct. 25, 2019, some 750 people packed into the space between the harbor and the Charleston Maritime Center for the speech-filled groundbreaking ceremony. Work had begun shortly after City Council approved construction contracts in mid-July.

More than 2,000 donors propelled the museum to the $100-million mark that museum leaders said was needed to start construction — $25 million more than a previous goal reached a year before that, and close to three times more than the first cost projections back when the earliest proposed opening date for the museum cited in The Post and Courier was 2007.

In July, the museum celebrated its “topping out” ― a construction tradition to mark when the final steel beam is set in place — with an outdoor, socially distanced gathering of a few dozen supporters.

Work at the site has progressed at a steady clip. The contractor team, Columbia-based and Black-owned Brownstone Construction Group and Turner Construction Co., is expected to complete the building before the end of 2021. A grand opening is planned for early the following year.

At this point, the building is nearly closed in, said museum Chief Operating Officer Elijah Heyward. The next step is to start laying the brick, for which they’ve hired PatCon Industries, a Black-owned, Columbia-based company. Progress can be viewed live online thanks to webcams set up at the site since construction began.

Sealing the structure is a “really big step,” Heyward said. “We expected the worst and were prepared for that.”

So far, the pandemic has not induced any significant hiccups in the $100-million-plus fundraising process. Officials only had to write off a couple of donations that couldn't be fulfilled — less than $100,000, said Ginny Deerin, the museum's major gifts officer. 

"We were really fortunate in the timing," Deerin said of having been able to raise the vast majority of the money needed to build and open the museum last year. 

The museum recently secured new financial commitments, including a $250,000 donation from aerospace giant Boeing Co. that brought the company’s total contributions to $1 million.

Deerin said IAAM also is netting $3.4 million from New Markets Tax Credits, a federal initiative meant to attract private investment and stimulate community development and economic growth in distressed communities. That total takes into account a $14.4 million allocation from TD Bank that was just announced this month. 

Museum officials also are striving to establish a $15 million endowment, about $8 million of which already has been raised. That puts the museum in an above-average position, financially. The median endowment of a special-interest museum is about $2.5 million, and it's generally lower for history museums, about $500,000, Deerin said. 

Fundraising for IAAM continues. The museum’s leaders are looking to raise another $3 million, in part to help “attract top talent,” including a permanent CEO and a chief curator, Heyward said. Those funds also would help pay consultants who help develop programming.

Having financial security and being an institution with a substantial endowment matters to visitors, Deerin said, because that stability "puts you in a position to be bold and be innovative, maybe more so than you could without it." 

Telling the story

Charleston is central to the African American experience. It was the main entryway to North America for the transatlantic slave trade, and its coastal landscape became one of the nascent country’s supreme economic engines thanks to rice cultivation and the agricultural expertise of enslaved West Africans.

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Workers continue construction on the International African American Museum on Oct. 15, 2020, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

After emancipation, many Black people settled along the Sea Islands of the Southeast coast. Their connection to West Africa was expressed through religious practices, artisanship, music-making, a distinctive Creole language, food preparation and communal living arrangements. Gullah-Geechee communities today face ongoing threats in the form of real estate development and gentrification, cultural appropriation and political disenfranchisement.

Civil rights activism in the Lowcountry, and elsewhere in South Carolina, became especially pronounced in the 1940s and 1950s, and continued into the 1960s. The NAACP brought important legal cases before federal judge J. Waties Waring, including a 1944 teacher’s salary equalization case; the 1946 case involving Isaac Woodard, a Black war veteran on his way home who had been beaten and blinded by the White sheriff of Batesburg; and Briggs v. Elliott, which produced J. Waties Waring’s famous 1951 dissent stating that “segregation is per se inequality,” setting the stage for Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Civic leaders such as Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins set up freedom schools, spearheaded voter registration efforts and lent support to Black workers downtown. Black newspaper publishers, such as John McCray, kept critical issues facing African Americans in the forefront.

Today in Charleston, historic sites such as McLeod Plantation, Middleton Place, Magnolia Plantation and Drayton Hall are striving to enrich their education programming and to confront the legacy of slavery. The Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston, once an independent school for African Americans, is a repository of artifacts and documents pertaining to all this history, especially 20th-century civil rights activities.

And now Charleston is getting a museum where this story can be told. But how will it be told? And how much of it?

Museum officials say themes will include “connections across the African diaspora, the spread of African American culture and influence, and the movements for justice and equality.” A Center for Family History will enable visitors to trace their genealogy and temporary exhibitions will present aspects of the African American experience.

Some in the community are worried that museum planners are focusing too much on the slavery narrative and not enough on what came before and after, including the achievements of African kingdoms and the cultural contributions of Black Americans.

Critics also have expressed concern that the museum is forging ahead in relative isolation, without seeking input from some of the Black people whose stories the institution seeks to tell, and without adequate preparations for collaboration with other local institutions, such as the Avery.

Gwen Robinson, a Mount Pleasant-based attorney, is part of the group Citizens Want Excellence at IAAM.

“They seem to have forgotten where they are and what this thing is supposed to be about,” Robinson said.

She insisted that an overemphasis on slavery could be harmful, citing her own experience in 2005 during a visit to the Charleston County Public Library downtown.

She was researching her ancestry when she came across an elementary school history textbook that portrayed Black people either atop a wagon loaded with watermelons or behind a plow.

“When I realized that that was how South Carolina treated the history of Black people, I dropped the book and just got physically overwhelmed,” she recalled. “I went and sat down, and before I knew it I was crying. I sat there until I could get myself together, and I left the library. I have not been able to go back.”

She wants IAAM to serve as a corrective, she said.

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The International African American Museum faces Charleston Harbor. It sits on the former site of Gadsden's Wharf, where tens of thousands of enslaved Africans were brought to the United States in the early 1800s. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

“America has done an abysmal, terrible, horrible job of presenting people of African origin in a light where we can become a positive part of this country,” she said. “The only presentation that America will accept for people like me is the slavery narrative, and that’s what this group objects to. We were not slaves; we were enslaved. No one was born a slave.”

Robinson said she doesn’t want all that came before and after slavery in North America to be an afterthought at the museum. Visitors need to gain an appreciation of the enormous contributions Black people have made.

She said she doesn’t claim to possess the expertise of museum curators, but some in the Citizens Want Excellence group have academic credentials, and the members do have knowledge of the Black experience in the Lowcountry and want to be sure that perspective is part of the presentation.

“There has been no opportunity for me, the citizen, to look at what their proposed content is,” Robinson said. “That’s what I’ve resented most.”

Inside and outside

Bernard Powers, the museum’s acting CEO and director of the College of Charleston’s Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston, said the project is on track. A national search currently is underway for a permanent full-time CEO, and the staff is expanding. Recently, an interim curator, curatorial registrar and faith-based program coordinator were added to the roster.

An initial draft of the script for exhibits is under scrutiny and will undergo refinements, he said.

“We will have a permanent collection, but it’s going to be small,” Powers added, reiterating that the museum has no intention of building a large repository of artifacts and objects. It will rely instead on touring shows curated elsewhere and temporary exhibitions curated in-house or in collaboration with other local institutions.

Short-term exhibitions can be mounted on a wide array of topics, including Lowcountry settlement communities, the effects of gentrification, aspects of Gullah culture and social justice activism, he said.

“The second-largest gallery space in the museum is the changing exhibit gallery, so you can do any number of things in there.”

The interim chief curator, James Bartlett, has been working remotely with the IAAM team from his home in Philadelphia for about two months. He'll remain in the role until a permanent curator is found, and that search won't start until a long-term CEO is chosen, he said.

Bartlett, former executive director for Brooklyn's Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, also has experience in film. He said he's using his skills to develop media for IAAM, including the museum's 10-minute orientation video. 

His team also will soon acquire artifacts. The "bulk of that will start in a month or so," Bartlett said, and they're "quite close" to finalizing text for the exhibit areas. 

What happens inside the building is just a part of the whole, Powers added. The museum is working with landscape architect and MacArthur fellow Walter Hood on an evocative outdoor space that will include gardens, a memorial to the anonymous African, contemplative space and signage containing information about the site and its historical importance.

UNESCO has identified the former Gadsden’s Wharf as one of 50 locations related to the slave trade worthy of a marker, Powers said.

“We want people to visit the museum even when it’s closed,” he said. “They can have a good experience on the outside, and they can learn on the outside.”

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The International African American Museum will feature indoor exhibitions and a Center for Family History as well as outdoor memorial gardens. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Tying communities together

John White, dean of libraries at the College of Charleston, said he hopes the museum’s narrative will echo that of the latest academic scholarship, which tells an inclusive and nuanced story about the African American experience. And here he sees potential for direct collaboration.

The Avery, as well as the college’s Special Collections, can lend materials for display at the museum, provide student interns, and welcome as adjunct faculty qualified museum staffers, he suggested.

“It’s an opportunity to tie together communities,” he said.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that the museum and the Avery are distinct institutions with different missions.

“Archives and museums work together all the time,” he said. “We wouldn’t treat the International African American History Museum any different than another museum that wants to borrow our stuff. The difference is they might be more interested in borrowing our stuff.”

Tamara Butler, director the Avery, said slavery is only a portion of her institution’s focus and collection, which includes artifacts and documents whose origins are West African or Caribbean, and materials associated with the civil rights movement.

“We are trying to combat anti-Black racism from a very specific angle,” she said, adding that she hopes to find ways to work with the museum without being overshadowed by it.

Charleston has the potential to become a global center for the investigation of slavery, Gullah culture, Black agriculture and Black island experiences, she said. Local institutions and historic sites can achieve this goal, but only if they engage local residents.

“So the question is, how do these multiple entities ensure that people feel part of the making and shaping of the process? ... We can intentionally approach communities united to say, ‘How can we best serve you?’ We need to be honest about the communities we’ve excluded, isolated and offended, and what we’re going to do to address those communities, and what we’re going to do to right those wrongs.”

‘Places of healing’

Vedet R. Coleman-Robinson, executive director of the Association of African American Museums in Washington, D.C., said it can take years for a new museum to find its footing. In Charleston, given its legacy as a hub of the transatlantic slave trade, any African American history museum needs to start with that. “Then you can build out the rest of your exhibits,” she said.

All institutions that are members of her organization have one thing in common, Coleman-Robinson said.

“The reasons that our museums succeed is because we’re part of the community, we invest in the community.”

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Workers continue construction on the International African American Museum on Oct. 15, 2020, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Museums that engage with the issues during a period of intensified social justice advocacy have an advantage, she said.

“We don’t have the luxury of not taking a stance.” Besides, Coleman-Robinson said, many Black history museums were founded within the context of protest. They are manifestations of society’s craving for justice. “We are places of healing,” she said.

Powers said museum staff now are beginning to confer with other organizations — Middleton Place, Drayton Hall, the College of Charleston — about joint programming and outreach. And they are considering ways to bring programming to other parts of South Carolina.

He is also considering a series of public meetings (probably virtual) to invite ideas and suggestions as the staff refine and finalize initial plans.

“Whenever you put a project together like this, there’s always someone left out,” he said. “There’s always going to be a group that says, ‘Hey, you didn’t tell my story.’ (But) the museum is not merely a series of exhibits. That’s not the only way you learn about people and the issues they face. It’s through programming also.”

The museum, he said, must live up to its name. It must present an international story, include a variety of perspectives, honor Black people in Charleston, and celebrate the contributions of Black people everywhere.

Reach Emily Williams at 843-607-0894. 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 news podcast Understand SC.

Adam Parker has covered many beats and topics for The Post and Courier, including race and history, religion, and the arts. He is the author of "Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.," published by Hub City Press.

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