CHARLESTON, SC — Standing near where tens of thousands of African slaves landed in Charleston, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. announced updated plans on Wednesday for a $75 million International African-American Museum.
“We've been working for over a decade to plan this museum and to carefully understand the opportunity and responsibility we have to tell this part of the American story,” the mayor said, standing where Gadsden's Wharf once stood.
From 1803 to 1807, the final years of the international slave trade, more than 70,000 enslaved Africans were brought to the wharf and sold at a time the city's population was only 20,000.The museum will tell the story of African-Americans from the time they were brought to this country as slaves, through the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow and through the civil rights movement until the present day.
When the museum was first proposed a dozen years ago, a larger, but less expensive, $37 million facility was envisioned. The plans now call for a 42,000-square foot building across from the South Carolina Aquarium and the Fort Sumter Visitors Center.
It will be financed with a combination of city, county and state money as well as contributions. The Charleston City Council approved a revenue bond on Tuesday for its $12.5 million share.
Riley said if everything goes according to plan, construction could begin in late 2015 with the museum opening in 2018.
“One thing that all of us board members understand and profoundly is that in many ways, Charleston was the gateway to American history,” said Wilbur Johnson, the local attorney who is the chairman of the museum board. “The influx of African-Americans through the shores of Charleston and Gadsden's Wharf has had a profound effect on American culture.”
Riley said the museum won't be a museum in the ordinary sense with simply a lot of historic artifacts. Instead it will focus on telling the story of black Americans with the use of interactive displays and changing exhibits.
Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the exhibits for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the new Visitor Reception Center at the United States Capitol, is designing the exhibits for the museum.
With the spot where slaves were brought ashore only a couple hundred feet from the site of the museum “we realized this was an emotional place and we had to find a way to capture it,” the mayor said.
“Eighty percent of the African-Americans living in the United States today can trace at least one ancestor back to this harbor, this water, this place,” Riley said.