Charleston, SC— After more than 20 years of planning, the International African American Museum (IAAM) has announced that the museum will welcome visitors for the opening weekend of January 21, 2023. Built on the former site of Gadsden’s Wharf – one of the nation’s most prolific slave trading ports – the International African American Museum will offer visitors an opportunity to engage with authentic and lesser-known history through transformative storytelling, engaging artifacts and displays, and its unique “power of place.” “ to deal with. The museum’s mission is to honor the untold story of the African American journey at one of America’s most sacred sites, and the long-awaited institution is poised to take that next step to fulfill that promise.
The museum includes nearly 150,000 square feet of exhibition, learning, and interpretive space. Nine exhibition galleries range thematically from showcasing African American origins and diasporic connections to uncovering centuries of African American economic, creative, and social contributions to American history to an unvarnished look at slavery and the enslaved people’s struggle for human dignity. Located on the edge of Charleston Harbor with uninterrupted views of the Atlantic Ocean, the museum’s distinctive design includes the African Ancestors Memorial Garden. The stunning “garden within a garden” design, which includes art installations, living plants and an infinity reflection pool, was created by landscape architect Walter Hood, a 2019 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant winner.
“I’m proud to have worked with our incredible team to bring this museum to opening day. This museum will be an indispensable place of courageous curiosity and authentic engagement with the history of our nation – with African American history,” says Dr. Tonya Matthews, President and CEO of the International African American Museum. “Committed coming to terms with history is a necessary station on the path to healing and reconciliation. Charleston is a port city, a global city, a historic city – and there is no better place for our museum to preserve these stories that have such national and international significance and impact.”
Recently named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s most anticipated museum openings, the museum was first publicly announced by former Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. during a State of the City speech in 2000. Over the decades of journeying to build the museum, Riley expressed and committed to the need to recognize the experiences and contributions that African Americans have brought and continue to bring to the country. “We had a long way to go because it took time to find the best location,” says the former mayor. “A place that is called ‘sacred’ because that’s where so many enslaved Africans came into our country and many died here. It took time to muster the resources, assemble the team and plan every detail that would enhance the experience of being here. And it has taken time because we are committed to excellence.”
Honoring the site is central to the history of the museum. Designed by world-renowned architect Henry Cobb, the museum’s iconic silhouette is created by eighteen 13-foot columns that elevate the structure above the outer garden space and extend to the pier walkway. A 245-foot steel band bearing the names of the regions from which enslaved people were brought will be installed beneath the museum on the site of the original rim of Gadsden’s Wharf. Crossing that boundary, visitors find themselves at the center of the museum’s Tide Tribute reflecting pool while observing boats and cargo ships that still navigate the harbor’s waterways today.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard professor and historian who made an early contribution to shaping the history of the museum, notes that “48.1% of all African slaves who entered the United States entered that country through Charleston came. So, for blackness, black culture, the African experience, the African American experience, slavery – however you choose to divide it – this is ground zero. I think it’s very important that a great southern city is home to a great museum that celebrates the achievements, history and culture of people of African descent.” Gates, who is also known for his popular series on ancestors, Find your rootshelped shape the museum’s concepts for its Family History Center genealogy research library.
The International African American Museum Family History Center, a premier genealogy library connected to the world’s largest genealogy databases, develops expertise in African American genealogy. The museum’s first chairman of the board, US Congressman James E. Clyburn, a longtime supporter of the museum, appreciates the inclusion of a genealogy center, art installations, and galleries spanning centuries of African and African-American history and contributions. The former history teacher notes that the museum is a place to honor and celebrate African Americans as a whole — and that it’s much more than just a place to tell stories about slavery.
“The grand opening of the International African American Museum is the culmination of over 20 years of hard work and I am pleased that it is finally bearing fruit,” said Congressman Clyburn. “I have always said that this museum should do more than just tell the story of slavery and pay tribute to the countless descendants of slavery who, despite their circumstances, have risen to prominence and helped bring us closer to this country’s promise of a ‘more perfect union .’ I am confident that this museum will help educate visitors about America’s dark past and inspire future generations with stories of perseverance.”
In the years leading up to its opening, the museum has hosted a variety of programs and partnerships—both domestically and internationally. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, recent museum programs have been virtual, creating ready avenues for cross-continent partnerships and programs.
There are many community leaders and stakeholders who continue to support the museum’s final steps toward the long-awaited milestone of the museum’s January opening, including Wilbur E. Johnson, managing partner of Clement Rivers, LLP, and chairman of the museum’s board of directors. “This is an exciting and gratifying time for everyone involved in this project. The opening of the museum will be a tangible expression of commitment to fulfilling the important and sacred mission of this institution,” said Johnson.
In the months leading up to the grand opening, the International African American Museum (IAAM) will release more details about the opening celebrations, including speakers and various events. Community members and prospective visitors around the world are encouraged to become charter members by visiting www.iaamuseum.org/members.