New museum opens door on enslavement in South Carolina

A new museum sheds light on the enslavement of Africans, their captivity in America and the impact their lives and labor have had on South Carolina.

The International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, describes itself as honoring “the untold stories of the African American journey at one of our country’s most sacred sites.”

These stories are told through art, artifacts, written and oral retellings, film, photographs and the creative presentation of historical information.

After 20 years of planning and fundraising, the museum opened in June 2023. It features seven main areas:

• Transatlantic Experience
• South Carolina Connections
• Gullah Geechee
• African Roots & African Routes
• Atlantic Worlds
• American Journeys
• Center for Family History

Walking through the various galleries, visitors are exposed to a barrage of experiences including recreated oral narratives of the enslaved, music, a series of large-format videos, the voices of current day South Carolinians, and digital exhibitions such as one about the Seashore Farmers Lodge and one on the legacy of the International Longshoremen’s Association.

One display wall pays tribute to African-American South Carolinians who made noteworthy contributions to the Palmetto state, the nation and the world through narratives, photos and memorabilia.

The museum highlights what Africans lost in their “coming to America” journey including their freedom, their names, their families, and often their lives. It also tells how the enslaved held on to some traditions and the rebellions that took place.

It also makes clear that the labor of enslaved people were and are paramount to South Carolina’s economy through agriculture and building the city.

“The economy of the Carolina Colony, and later, of this US state, was rooted in this lucrative cash crop, particularly a variety called Carolina Gold. Enslaved men, women, and children endured harsh conditions and deadly diseases to mass-produce rice, which generated tremendous wealth for slaveholders and merchants,” states an exhibit.

A model of a tidal rice field cultivation on a low country plantation showing preparing the fields, weeding and flooding, final flow, harvest, and processing.

In the Center for Family History, a research center dedicated to assisting individuals in connecting with family histories, visitors can search through digital archives and receive virtual one-on-one genealogy consultation for a fee.

“Our sweeping collection of digital archives spans marriage records, bible records, obituraries and funeral programs, records for free people of color, United States Colored Troops pension files, and collections found on familysearch.org,” states the museum’s website.

The site of the museum is as much a revelation as the exhibits within. Gadsden’s Wharf, which the museum refers to as a “sacred site,” along with several others in the Charleston Harbor is where an estimated 40 percent of African captives entered America.

“Between 1670 and 1808, as many as 260,000 captive Africans disembarked in South Carolina. The majority were brought through Gadsden’s Wharf…” reads one plaque on the outside of the museum by the waterfront.

The African Ancestors Memorial Garden located beneath the museum, which “hovers” 13 feet above the historic wharf, is landscaped with a palm grove “studded with Canary Island Palms, a reflection of the African Diaspora, to its Sweetgrass Field filled with waist-high grasses that serve as the foundation of Lowcountry basket weaving traditions,” according to the museum’s website.

Of special note in the garden is the Tide Tribute with relief figures representing a man, woman or child shackled in the bellies of ships that once anchored at the site in Charleston Harbor. “As the tide changes, the shallow pool of water fills and empties, covering and revealing the shapes of those it honors,” notes the website.

The International African American Museum, located at 14 Wharfside St., is open Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets for timed entry range from $10 to $22. Discounts available for SNAP/EBT cardholders. For more information, go to iaamuseum.org.

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