Charleston's International African American Museum was almost built in the wrong place.
Mayor Joe Riley unveiled the idea for this new museum in 2000 and steadily worked toward making it a reality, but it wasn't until 14 years later that a consensus emerged that there was a much better site.
When the city shifted the proposed museum from the vacant corner lot across from the S.C. Aquarium to a block away, a spot just north of the Charleston Maritime Center, the project took on new life.
Since then, the new site and its history have become one of the project's greatest talking points as archaeology confirmed it once was part of Gadsden's Wharf. This wharf was a major point of entry for African slaves legally imported into the United States in the waning years of the international slave trade.
"We're creating our African-American museum on the spot where most of that history began," museum Director Michael Moore said. "It's a profoundly important, if not sacred, site that just accentuates what we're doing."
And those who walk the museum's grounds will sense that, even if they never step inside.
'The most extensive of its kind'
This might not have happened if Robert Macdonald had not retired to Mount Pleasant several years ago. Macdonald, director emeritus of the Museum of the City of New York, began serving on the S.C. Aquarium's board and began taking an interest in its surrounding area.
He began to dig into historical records.
"What surprised me when I started doing the research is it was locally relatively unknown even among people you would assume would know the history about it,” he said.
Macdonald learned that Christopher Gadsden, a politically active and successful Charleston businessman, used slave labor to begin building an 840-foot-long wharf on his property just north of the colonial city in the 1760s.
The project — which The South Carolina Gazette once called "the most extensive of its kind ever undertaken by any one man in America" — eventually covered the area bounded roughly by the Cooper River and Concord, Calhoun and Laurens streets.
The wharf was used to move rice and all sorts of other goods, and Gadsden would become a major patriot during the Revolutionary War, even being referred to as "the Sam Adams of the South," Macdonald learned. After Charleston fell to the British in 1781, Macdonald said it was poetic justice that almost 20,000 British troops, Loyalists and captured slaves departed from Gadsden's Wharf.
Following the war, the wharf became the site of many of Charleston's former slave sales and the importation point during the final few years when the international slave trade was legal.
Between 1805 and 1807, Gadsden's Wharf was the epicenter of a desperate rush to import African slaves for South Carolina's rice and cotton plantations, as well as the cotton and sugar cane fields in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory" Macdonald said.
By Jan. 1, 1806, it had become Charleston's only location for importing slaves; a year earlier, the city felt compelled to pass an ordinance prohibiting the tossing of dead slaves into the river after the practice had caused people to stop eating fish from there. The wharf included warehouses that kept slaves before their sale, and as many as 700 once died during an unusually cold three-month stretch.
"It is difficult to grasp the inhumanity that took place on Gadsden's Wharf," Macdonald wrote. "While white Charlestonians were relishing in their newfound freedom from King George, they were brutally treating human beings as little more than beasts of burden or disposable cargo."
No wonder so many following generations of Charlestonians would never learn what had happened there.
'The real thing'
As Macdonald began probing the site's history, those working on the museum began to broaden the conversation about what the project's direction.
A key step was contacting architect Henry Cobb, who was not working on the project but who Riley had met years earlier when the two had served on a design jury in New York. At Riley's invitation, Cobb flew down to Charleston on his own dime to take a fresh look at things.
After visiting the original site at Concord and Calhoun streets, Cobb asked the mayor to walk around the area.
They walked from that site toward the Fort Sumter Visitors Center and then along the walkway between the river and Dockside Condominiums. He urged the mayor to move the site to the water.
"He didn't want to work on it if it wasn't in the right place," Riley said of Cobb, who was able to convince the mayor to pursue the new waterfront site. "The story is not the museum, the building, it's what occurred here and honoring its history."
The city previously owned the site but had sold it off to be developed as a restaurant. Riley convinced the city to buy it back in 2014 for $3.5 million.
Once the city owned the property, it hired Brockington and Associates to do some archaeological work to find possible traces of the wharf. Archaeologist Eric Poplin of Brockington Associates dug three exploratory trenches in the area.
Poplin's firm previously dug in the general area years earlier for a city drainage project, and it had recommended that its archaeological deposits didn't seem significant enough to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The State Office of Historic Preservation agreed with that conclusion, but a clerical error at the time actually said it was eligible for the register.
"That is maybe the happiest mistake we've made,” said Elizabeth Johnson, director of the state Office of Historic Preservation.
Findings that will shape the city
Poplin's team returned to the site in 2014 with a new set of questions and a plan to dig in different places.
They not only uncovered evidence of the original line where Gasden's Wharf met the water but also a layer of brick believed to be the floor of a 1795 storehouse there.
They found few artifacts of interest, likely because of the industrial nature of the site and the way it had been filled and redeveloped. Around 1818, a rice mill was built on the site, and archaeologists also found significant chunks of it underground.
Poplin's team will return to the site when construction begins. Since the site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, archaeologists will help offset the negative consequences of driving new piles there.
Later this year, archaeologists not only will monitor the excavations around the building's pilings but they also will dig carefully into a southern portion of the site where more evidence of that 1795 storehouse might remain. The storehouse floor found previously was in the Maritime Center's parking lot, not on the IAAM site, but an old map indicates it likely extended onto the site.
The wharf's existence is reflected by the design of both the building and grounds. Cobb's design essentially floats above the land, and landscape architect Walter Hood has featured elements of the wharf into his plan.
“It's a real site. It’s not a site where we’ll be referencing other sites," Hood said, adding the big challenge was respecting its context as "hallowed ground" while also making it an appealing, functional public space.
Hood's design includes a steel band along the wharf's original waterfront and an interpretation of where the storehouse once stood.
The design also includes a water feature based on the well-known image of slaves packed onto the slave ship Brookes, one that's expected to include stone remnants of a jetty on Bunce Island in Sierra Leone, where some slaves left that continent. The design also features a Lowcountry garden with African flourishes closer to the street.
"For me, this is one of those projects where we can tell truth to place," Hood said. "My critique of a lot of museums or exhibits that deal with the idea of slavery is that a lot of them kind of divorce themselves from place. I think that’s kind of easy to do."
This will be different. Macdonald said one thing museums can do well is to get people attached to physical things that have meaning.
In the case of the International African American Museum, that will begin the moment that visitors see the site.
"There is that deep emotional attachment, and that’s the thing," he said. "Yes, museums offer intellectual and visual information, but what's really successful for a museum is that emotion you can elicit. People seeing the real thing, touching the real thing.”
Hood said he is glad the museum is willing to go there.
"We need these places in our lives that challenge us to reconcile our history. By this being a real site, I think we need to challenge ourselves so we see these sites for what they are," he said. "It’s not an easy thing to talk about slavery to talk about dead bodies, to talk about how the food chain changed in Charleston Harbor because bodies were just thrown over the docks.
"How do you create a space that deals with these things head on but that still offers that space for reconciliation?" he said. "That’s been our hardest part."