South Carolina is on the verge of creating what will be one of its most profound institutions, and one that will engender great admiration for our state across our country, and beyond.
It is the International African American Museum at Gadsden’s Wharf on the historic Charleston Harbor.
The institution, which is more than a decade and a half in the making, is the product of the hard work of teams of renowned historians, including South Carolina’s own Walter Edgar, the internationally known exhibit designers at Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the seasoned architects at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and Moody Nolan, and the gifted landscape architects at Hood Design Studio. With the advice and input of citizens across our state and nation, the museum will be a stunning and powerful historic institution.
The genesis of the museum was the book Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball, a descendant of one of the first families to settle in South Carolina. The book, which won the National Book Award the year it was published, chronicled the history of the Balls’ family plantation on the Cooper River and the family’s ownership of enslaved Africans. It traced the descendants of enslaved Africans, including Priscilla, who was purchased by the Ball family in 1756 as a young girl.
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For me, and I believe for many, the book cleared the fog that had long occluded African-American history by presenting the lives of enslaved Africans.
It also revealed the amazing statistic that 48.1 percent of all enslaved Africans who came to North America arrived in Charleston, and the majority disembarked at Gadsden’s Wharf. In the last three years of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, which ended Dec. 31, 1807, a staggering 70,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Gadsden’s Wharf.
Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, which opened in September, called Gadsden’s Wharf one of the “few sacred sites of African American history in the western hemisphere.”
David Blight, director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, called our museum “one of the most important commemorative projects in American history.”
48.1 percent of all enslaved Africans who came to North America arrived in Charleston, and the majority disembarked at Gadsden’s Wharf.
In addition to attracting visitors to our state from across the country and around the world, the museum will develop curricula that will serve as extraordinarily valuable resources for history teachers nationwide.
The museum’s exhibits will begin with Africa, so we can come to understand the advanced civilizations from which so many Africans were captured and enslaved. Then, through the lens of South Carolina, we will explore African-American history up to the present day.
The museum will also introduce the Center for Family History, which will allow people to identify their countries of origin, uncover their ancestries and even discover living relatives. Before 1870, the U.S. census did not record the names of African-Americans, making it incredibly difficult to trace their roots and construct their family trees. The museum will help remedy this — providing a fascinating opportunity for not only African-Americans but people of all backgrounds to collectively trace our history.
With a $5 million state appropriation this year and the remaining $6 million over the next two years, we believe construction can begin in January, allowing the museum to open in 2019.
A critically important step that will enable construction to begin next year is the pending $5 million appropriation in the Senate version of next year’s state budget bill. This represents a continuation of the state’s portion of the funding.
The $75 million museum is to be funded by $12.5 million each from Charleston and Charleston County, $25 million from the state ($14 million has been appropriated so far) and $25 million in private philanthropy, which is proceeding very well.
It will celebrate diversity, highlight our state and nation’s history and chronicle the unparalleled significance of faith that is central to the African-American experience.
With this year’s $5 million appropriation, and a general understanding that the remaining $6 million could be appropriated over the next two years, we believe that construction can begin in January, allowing the museum to open in 2019. This would be a cause of celebration in our state and our country, bringing enormous pride and credit to the citizens of South Carolina.
We are approaching the second anniversary of the unspeakable tragedy at one of our city’s oldest, most historic churches, Mother Emanuel. On June 17, 2015, a hateful bigot took nine precious souls from us, including our beloved state senator, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
I believe that taking this step to support the International African American Museum, which will celebrate diversity, highlight our state and nation’s history and chronicle the unparalleled significance of faith that is central to the African-American experience, is the most appropriate way to honor the memories of the beloved Charleston Nine.
Mr. Riley is the former mayor of Charleston; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.