South Carolina opens the new International African American Museum

South Carolina’s magnolia-lined and historic Charleston has opened the doors of a new International African American Museum (IAAM)...

5 mins

It’s easy to see why South Carolina’s Charleston casts such a spell on visitors. Stately antebellum mansions spill their magnolia blooms to the coast, while the city’s historic centre still evokes the old-world manners and charm that this corner of the USA is famous for.

The hard truth arrives when you learn what much of this was built on.

By 1776, Charleston was home to nine of America’s ten wealthiest people. At the same time, it was no coincidence that some 40% of enslaved Africans transported to America passed through its port, nor that the surrounding plantations flourished on the backs of the region’s abundance of indentured labourers – Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation held around 235 enslaved workers at any one time.

But while you can’t change the past, you can acknowledge it. In 2018, the city officially apologised for its role in the slave trade; now it has opened the doors of a new 14,000 sqm International African American Museum (IAAM).

The International African American Museum, Charleston (IAAM)

The International African American Museum, Charleston (IAAM)

Given the history of Charleston, it is an important step. An estimated 80% of African Americans can trace an ancestor to the city; the museum offers a chance to tell the story of how their lives, cultures and strength shaped the Carolinas and the world. It is a tale that could perhaps only have been told here.

“Thank you for waiting several centuries for this moment to honour the untold story of the African American people,” announced Dr Tonya Matthews, president and CEO of IAAM, at the museum’s opening. “Our stories, our history – they are seeds, and seeds sprout. They have been planted and germinating for hundreds of years, and now we till the soil.”

The IAAM stands on the site of Gadsden’s Wharf. For many of the poor souls who survived the Atlantic crossing from Africa down the centuries, this historic quayside was the first landmark they would have seen upon disembarking in America. Today it offers a different experience entirely; one that is more relevant than ever in modern American culture, believes Malika N Pryor, chief learning and engagement officer of IAAM:

“During a time [when] the idea of the African American experience being quintessential to the American experience is being challenged around the nation, what a fantastic moment for this museum to be alive.” 

Part of the exhibition at the IAAM invites visitors to reflect on the Transatlantic Crossings (IAAM)

Part of the exhibition at the IAAM invites visitors to reflect on the Transatlantic Crossings (IAAM)

The IAAM’s nine galleries look to show how African Americans affected economic, political and cultural development across the USA and beyond, all while tying that history to the South Carolina Lowcountry.

One fascinating example of this is the Gullah Geechee Gallery, which looks at the descendants of Africans enslaved on island plantations off the lower Atlantic coast. Their isolation meant that they developed a unique African-Creole culture and language (known as Gullah) that is still found across North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Theirs is a story that few other museums tell or even acknowledge.  

As well as exploring histories that have been traditionally ignored, visitors can access the Center for Family History, a world-class genealogy and ancestry resource centre, to research their own family tree. There is also an African Ancestors Memorial Garden, which reflects on the historic significance of the wharf and the many who never even survived to see it.

For visitors, the IAAM promises a place of reflection as well as galleries of immersive exhibitions. But there is more than tourism at stake here. The museum is a battle for space within a conversation that for so long excluded the African American experience, sitting in a location that was once a great source of shame. Now it finally offers a chance to redress this past by sharing the untold stories and diverse experiences of the African diaspora.

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