New Charleston African-American museum opening to sold-out crowds

The museum was built overlooking a port that was once a major entry point for slave ships.
International African American History museum officially opens in Charleston
Published: Jun. 28, 2023 at 11:34 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WBTV) - Known as a top tourist destination in the Carolinas, Charleston now has a new attraction.

After years of delays due to COVID and supply chain issues, the International African-American Museum is officially open to the public.

Museum board member Rita Scott is relieved exhibits have moved from the drawing board to the showroom floor.

“It is coming out of a time that we said yes it is time, and of course we’ll be happy but we didn’t know that it would take 23 years,” she said. “This is part of American History. It’s a part of world history.”

History which isn’t always easy or pleasant to comprehend.

Built on the banks of the Cooper River, the museum is perched above Gadsden’s wharf which was once a major entry point for individuals arriving in the new world. Individuals who were enslaved, according to College of Charleston Professor Dr. Bernie Powers.

“We know that half of all the African people who were brought into North America, half of them were brought into Charleston during the Transatlantic slave trade,” Powers said.

The reality of what’s called America’s original sin - slavery - offers of a gripping narrative through the exhibit halls, but plantation life is just one slice of the museum experience.

The museum’s executive director, Tonya Matthews, an explanation.

“We are here to place that African-American story in its full context,” she said. “It’s quite a journey. It’s been a worthwhile journey, and it’s a journey that’s still going on.”

In other words, the learning at the museum never stops.

It was eight years ago this week in Charleston when President Barack Obama paid tribute to the nine victims who were killed at Mother Emanuel Church.

They’re also being honored at the museum, and at a sneak preview event this past weekend, the Obamas embraced the work being carried out in what’s called “sacred space.”

“This museum isn’t just meaningful to people in Charleston,” the former president said in a videotaped message.

Ringing endorsements came from elected officials like Congressman Jim Clyburn, and former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who gave birth to the idea of such a museum.

His successor Mayor John Tecklenburg said he marvels at what can be learned by walking through the exhibit halls.

“I didn’t read about these things in my South Carolina History Book in eighth grade,” he said.

Coming to grips with the value of lives too often marginalized in a venue such as this can be sobering, and so is the price tag after two decades of bringing relative stories to life.

The latest price estimate being $100 million.

Powers embraces the fact that it took time and opening the doors didn’t come easy or happen overnight.

“It is a better museum today than the one we conceived of 23 years ago,” he said.

Exhibits range from genealogy to the civil rights movement and beyond.

If you’re going, plan ahead as tours are sold out through July 6.

Also Read: 8 Years Later: Looking back on the Charleston church shooting