CHARLESTON — A swift, cool breeze lifts off the Cooper River. It frisks through the crowns of the towering palm trees that line the paved walkway. Small boats wobble in the calm waters on the east side of the Charleston peninsula.
A neatly manicured patch of grass provides a tranquil spot for a blanket and a book. In the distance, the steel cables of the Ravenel Bridge stretch in splendor. To the right, flags fly over Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
Soon, this waterfront wonderland will be home to the International African American Museum. The $100 million, 40,000-square-foot facility will bridge solemn history and modern magnificence. It will offer captivating exhibits, engaging events and a breathtaking view of the Charleston Harbor.
However, this land is more than prime riverfront real estate. It connects deeply to the heritage the museum aims to commemorate.
Ship voyage records reveal that nearly half of the enslaved Africans who were shipped to North America disembarked in Charleston. Many slaves took their first steps on American soil on this patch of land, which was once the largest wharf in North America.
Historians estimate that more than 90% of all African-Americans can trace at least one ancestor to this land.
Eighteen years ago, former Charleston mayor Joe Riley pledged to build an iconic museum that honors that heritage and illuminates the achievements cultivated from that regrettable past.
Since then, 37 other museums dedicated to African-American history and culture have been constructed. However, IAAM supporters contend that this land grants it a distinctive, visceral magnetism.
Riley's vision has attracted support from city, county and state government, local business owners, national organizations and historians. Yet, Riley and IAAM chief executive officer and president Michael Boulware Moore must raise millions more before construction can begin.
Moore's passion for this project is personal. When he walks this pristine patch of grass, he can hear the shackles rattling as they dragged against the wooden planks. He can see his great-great-great-great-grandmother walking across the wharf.
“We know that she landed here. That’s sort of my original anchor to Charleston. It’s really deep emotional territory for me,” Moore said. “Every time I go, it hits me."
"I understand the history that occurred there," he said. "I understand tens of thousands of people, including my ancestors, disembarked there in chains. I am confronted by the emotions that must have been felt on that space and just by the enormity of what happened.”
The land's significance
This serene site was once the epicenter of America’s ugliest enterprise.
Nearly 250 years ago, this area was merely brackish marsh. Charleston merchant Christopher Gadsden converted it into the largest wharf in North America. It covered 840 feet from the Charleston Harbor to East Bay Street, between what are now Calhoun and Laurens Streets.
Initially, Gadsden’s Wharf primarily serviced the rice industry. Eventually, it became a hub of the international slave trade.
From 1783 to 1808, approximately 100,000 enslaved African men, women and children were forced into ships and carried on a voyage through darkness across the Atlantic Ocean into the Charleston Harbor.
According to historian and former South Carolina Historical Society archivist Nic Butler, on Feb. 17, 1806, the City Council of Charleston passed an ordinance stipulating that all vessels importing enslaved Africans port in Gadsden’s Wharf.
Enslaved Africans were stored like crops in a wharf warehouse. Shackled to despair, hundreds of men, women and children died from fevers or frostbite. They were buried unceremoniously in a nearby mass grave.
Those who survived those subhuman conditions were advertised in newspapers, sold and dispersed.
“Some have described it as the enslaved Africans’ Ellis Island,” University of South Carolina history professor Bobby Donaldson said. “If you can imagine people who endured and survived the Middle Passage from West Africa across the Atlantic, Gadsen’s Wharf is where they see land, where they see a dark and unknown future.”
Slaves were taken to different corners of the fledgling country. They toiled in fields to quicken the economy and fostered a lineage of influential American inventors, educators, soldiers, politicians, writers, philosophers, entrepreneurs, entertainers, activists and athletes.
The Charleston Maritime Center sits close to where that abominable warehouse once stood. The slave ships have been replaced by house boats and cruise liners. Yet, as he combs slowly through that manicured patch of grass, Moore can also picture those overstuffed ships docked here 200 years ago.
International African American Museum coming to Charleston, S.C.
“We’re trying to create an experience that tells the truth about history, that delivers an unvarnished history,” Moore said, “but that does it in a way that people, regardless of their background, walk out feeling uplifted, feeling inspired by the perseverance of the people they’ve learned about, by just the grittiness of what they went through and the fact that they overcame that and contributed great things.”
Former Charleston mayor Riley first proposed the museum during his inaugural address in 2000, the 24th year of his 40-year tenure in office.
“It’s taken a long time, but that’s nothing to apologize for, because we just had the idea of a museum,” Riley said. “Well, what is its purpose? What stories does it tell? How big is it? Where does it go?”
Riley thought he had answered that final question. Initially, city administrators planned to build the museum on land the city already owned at the corner of Calhoun and Concord streets.
Those plans were revised in 2014, when consulting historians on the project discovered that Gadsden’s Wharf was directly across the street. Riley immediately knew it was the perfect location for a museum. However, 11 years earlier, city officials knew it was the perfect location for a waterfront restaurant.
“We did a master plan, and we sold a vacant tract that the city once owned,” Riley said, “not knowing that was where Gadsden’s Wharf was.”
Charleston restaurant royalty, the Balish family, purchased the land in 2003 for $600,000.
“They spent money designing a restaurant,” Riley said. “The recession had kept them from moving forward, but they were ready to go forward.
“I said, ‘I need to meet with y’all, because I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is the land you own was once Gadsden’s Wharf, and you are now burdened with that knowledge. The good news is we will buy it back from you.”
Riley said the land owners considered the importance of the city’s plans and did not hesitate to sell. The city purchased the parcel for $3.5 million.
Later that year, archeologists dug trenches on the site and unearthed remnants of the wharf. The discovery did not simply confirm Riley’s assessment of the location. It reaffirmed his assertion on the magnitude of the importance of the project.
“You will get goosebumps. It is a sacred site, with one of the most amazing, historic views in America,” Riley said. “We had a duty in Charleston to create an institution that was worthy of the history and the story that was of African-Americans being brought here and their experiences.”
The museum will include eight exhibition districts that guide visitors from the 17th century in West Africa to present-day communities. It will feature the Center for Family History, an immersive genealogical archive that will provide resources to help visitors trace their ancestry.
Several companies have donated directly to this research center. TD Bank pledged $250,000 last year.
"It's an exciting project, to have this piece of property with such historical significance in downtown Charleston," TD Bank South Carolina market president David Lominack said. "We believe the Center for Family history is going to be one of the most powerful components of the museum and will allow somebody to make that connection with an ancestor that came through Gadsden's Wharf."
The museum will also include a social action lab that will hosts forums, seminars and training sessions to augment awareness and stimulate solutions on various issues. Additional space will include a multi-purpose community room, gift shop and multimedia theater.
Donaldson, who also directs the USC Center for Civil Rights History and Research, contends that the museum can provide “a place of contemplation” that encourages respectful, but critical discussions.
The IAAM has raised more than $59 million, including $14 million from the state and $25 million from the City of Charleston and Charleston County. The state has agreed to allocate more funds once the IAAM raises at least $25 million from private donors.
The museum announced $1.2 million in donations through the previous two weeks. It is less than $5 million away from its benchmark.
If the remaining requisite funds are raised, the museum will break ground this summer with a target opening date during the third quarter of 2020.
Moore said the museum will continue to raise funds toward an endowment to support the operation budget and ensure the IAAM avoids the financial hardship some museums encountered.
"It's critical that we set this institution up for success," Moore said. "I have looked at people who have come before me and looked to them for inspiration. Hopefully, we're creating something that will provide inspiration for my children, both literally my children and figuratively people of their generation, who will come and learn and grow and feel that the arc of their achievements can be a little bit higher because of what they have experienced at the museum."
Soon, where that swift, cool breeze wafts from the river, visitors can saunter between solemn history and modern magnificence.
They can stand in the sobering stillness, to hear the shackles that slid across those wooden planks, to see the gravity of our shared American truth, to feel the hope of understanding.
“This is reclaiming history. It’s an American story,” Riley said. “It’s the story of human passion and commitment and resilience to survive and excel. Persistence. Courage. Determination. Sacrifice.
“It’s a story that’s important to all human beings. This will be one of the most important institutions in our country and certainly in South Carolina.”