At the site of one of the world’s most prolific slave ports, a museum designed to “simultaneously hold the sensations of trauma and joy” is set to open next week honoring the many thousands of Africans forced to leave home under barbaric conditions as it also celebrates their essential American legacy.
The International African American Museum will open at Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina, where more than 40% of the nation’s enslaved Africans arrived for sale into bondage, museum officials said. Hundreds also died at the site, which until museum planning began carried only a small marker to note its significance.
The project – with an ancestry research center, a powerful tribute those named in commercial records and memorial gardens with an artistic nod to the sea – aims to highlight enslaved people’s societies on both sides of their brutal journey, museum President and CEO Tonya Matthews said ahead of Saturday’s dedication and a June 27 public opening.
“It’s acknowledging that there were communities and civilizations and people that we were taken from,” she told CNN. “It’s also acknowledging that once we got to where we were, we also began to build communities and civilizations.”
Two decades in the making, the museum is set to open amid a national self-examination of race revitalized by the 2020 murder of Black father George Floyd by a White police officer in Minneapolis. While officials in some places in recent years have limited race education, Charleston – which draws some 7 million tourists each year with its historic churches, grand mansions, rainbow-hued row houses and acclaimed cuisine – apologized in 2018 for its role in the slave trade, as have the US Congress and other major institutions.
Four miles across Charleston’s harbor from the site of Civil War’s first shot at Fort Sumter, the 150,000-square-foot museum features nine galleries with arts and artifacts tied to enslaved people’s homelands and journey, along with their struggles – and monumental triumphs – in America.
Meanwhile, its Center for Family History offers in-person and virtual resources that go beyond census papers to trace lineage via bills of sale, property ownership and other records that in themselves drive home the chattel labor trade’s inhumanity. Specialized databases and expert genealogists also are on hand to help anyone dig for relatives’ names and stories – an effort that already has revealed long-hidden evidence of defiance and strength and stoked fresh pride far down at least one family tree.
Some 13 feet below the main museum building sits the historic wharf, now home to African Ancestors Memorial Garden, a free, public space designed by MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow Walter Hood to honor the “hallowed ground” of the wharf.
“There are few among us who have been able to reclaim space, and we call that the power of place,” said Matthews, a biomedical engineer and published poet who is Black. “It almost turns us into not just a heritage site but a pilgrimage site.”
‘It is about the humanity’
To get to exhibit galleries, visitors ascend a large staircase in the middle of the museum. Through the halls, tribal art and contemporary fashion reflect the deep cultural roots and skill of so many artists once treated as freight – and of those who followed them. Relics of protest and tales of resistance also echo here, along with the stories of the Gullah Geechee descendants of enslaved West Africans who still live nearby and the role of South Carolina from the era of slave trading through modern times.
In one gallery, black walls are inscribed in silver with African names, along with ages – some as young as 4 – while an adjacent gallery similarly lists names imposed upon the enslaved. The names are taken from cargo manifests and sales documents of people forced to pass through Gadsden’s Wharf.
Nearby observation decks look out to the ocean. “It is about the humanity that may have been lost or was … dampened in this space,” Matthews said. The departure gallery “is our smallest and arguably the most powerful gallery in the museum.”
Down below, the gardens’ dual anchors include a tide tribute – in some ways America’s answer to Ghana’s “Door of No Return” – and the site of a “storage house” where hundreds of enslaved Africans died during an epically cold winter.
The tide tribute is an “ephemeral presentation of the ‘Brookes’ slave ship diagram, a now-famous depiction of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’s profoundly inhumane transport conditions.” The Atlantic tide flows in and out of the memorial, which depicts the diagram of how more than 450 people could be packed shoulder-to-shoulder in a ship’s hold for transport to the Americas for sale.
The west side of the tribute marks the wharf’s historical edge, where a metal marker lists the names of departure and arrival ports of the enslaved. The scope of the vast piece truly can only be taken in from the museum above.
At the gardens’ south edge is “one of the places where we gently reckon with what this space actually was,” Matthews said. Up to 800 enslaved Africans “quarantined there died during the cold winter of 1807 and were unceremoniously thrown into a mass grave nearby,” The Post and Courier reported in 2020.
Two black granite walls rise from what had been the building’s foundation. “The outside is rock. The inside of these two walls (is) polished so smoothly, you can see a reflection in it,” Matthews said.
Figures between the walls “obviously (are) representing those we lost,” she said. “But as those figures get closer and closer to the water, they almost appear to be emerging out of the concrete.” Inscribed on the outside of what would have been the “storage house” wall is part of Maya Angelou’s poem, “And Still I Rise”:
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
‘The secret and the gift of the African American journey’
The brainchild of former 10-term Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, who is White, and championed by its first board chair, longtime Congressional Black Caucus member Jim Clyburn, the museum hinges as much on the cruelty of the experience of enslaved people as its emotional opposite.
“It’s this infusion of trauma and joy constantly that we like to talk about here: You get the full story, but you’re going to get all the context in it,” Matthews said. “The secret and the gift of the African American journey is our ability to simultaneously hold the sensations of trauma and joy.”
No fuller could that context – and awe – have been than when CNN anchor Victor Blackwell traced his own family tree with resources from the museum’s Center for Family History.
“Make sure you got a box of Kleenex by you, and sit there and enjoy,” the museum’s top genealogist, Shelley Murphy, advised him via laptop from the University of Virginia as she guided him back to 1712 to reveal a wending saga starring two enslaved women whose audacity and legal dexterity paved the way for their descendants’ freedom and opportunity.
“It is remarkable,” Blackwell said. “It fills in a lot of gray, a lot of blank space. There was nothing there; there was an assumption. Now, there are names and relatives and places and stories.”
And through the museum, more key pieces of America’s story undoubtedly will be reclaimed.
“The intent is for folks to go through all of the emotions, right? One simply in the stories we tell but also in the stories that our visitors bring themselves,” Matthews said.
Indeed, as the tide tribute illustrates where enslaved people came from and went to, the museum itself reflects a duality of experience, perhaps no more brightly than phrases written in neon lights on one wall: “We begin here” and “I am still here.”
“I have yet to have a conversation with anyone who felt just one thing,” Matthews said. “And feeling everything all at once sometimes is, I think, core to the African American experience and arguably the African diaspora across the globe.”
CNN’s Michelle Krupa contributed to this report.