Charleston is full of historic spaces, but no spot is more imbued with the spirit of the past than the site of Gadsden’s Wharf. Located on the western side of the Cooper River where that waterway joins the Ashley in Charleston harbor, the wharf was at one point in the 18th century the largest quayside area in this country for the unloading of ships.
At Charleston harbor, some historians estimate, around 40 percent of the people brought from Africa as part of the slave trade first arrived on this continent, and the majority of those unfortunate individuals first set foot on American soil at Gadsden’s Wharf. It is little wonder then that when the city’s long-serving mayor Joseph Riley made the first mention of a possible African American museum in the city more than two decades ago, one site gained early favor.
Finally, this year on the site of that infamous wharf, which has long accommodated the South Carolina Aquarium and the Fort Sumter Visitor Information Center, opened the International African American Museum. Just this month, I had a chance to visit Charleston’s newest cultural resource.
Any visit begins with the public gardens that ring the museum structure, which is itself held aloft on sturdy 13-foot-tall pillars to evade the consequence of storm flooding. Both the garden vegetation and topography are designed to replicate locations on the transatlantic voyage endured by countless thousands from the colonial period to the banning of the importation of enslaved people in 1808.