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A tranquil spot on the Cooper River in Charleston is a place of memory, much like New York’s Ellis Island or Angel Island in San Francisco.
But those islands were beacons for millions who sought a better life in America. Gadsden’s Wharf which once stood on Charleston’s waterfront was where tens of thousands of African slaves brought against their wills first stepped foot in the United States.
For almost 15 years work has been underway on creating a museum to tell the story of those who arrived in chains – where they came from and what they did to help build America. Now the $75 million International African American Museum to be built on the site is more than a vision.
Last week, organizers had their first public meeting to discuss ideas for exhibits and displays. Later this month the first architectural renderings will be reviewed by city officials and, if all goes to plan, construction could begin next year with the museum opening in 2018.
In a nation where numerous museums tell the story of the black experience – indeed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in Washington next year – Charleston’s promises to be different.
“The extraordinary thing we have in Charleston is the authenticity of place – a place whose power has never been recognized,” says noted museum exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum, whose work includes the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
“One would never know walking on this site that one might have once been hearing the cries or the laughter of people who lived on this site and were being held for sale,” he said.
The wharf was built by Revolutionary War leader Christopher Gadsden, also known for designing the yellow rattlesnake flag of the period with the legend “Don’t Tread on Me.” When the British left Charleston in 1783 after the end of the war, they embarked from Gadsden’s wharf.
One side of the planned 42,000-square-foot museum will have large windows looking out on the water which humans crossed from Africa in the holds of slave ships. That will be mirrored on the other side of the building with windows looking on Charleston, the first city slaves passed through as they began lives of servitude in the United States.
The museum plans, among other things, a family history center where, using touchscreen technology, visitors can do genealogical research and add their own stories to the database.
Exhibits will trace the journey of Africans from Africa to colonial South Carolina, through the Revolution and antebellum period to freedom after the Civil War. Other exhibits will tell the story of blacks during the Jim Crow era of segregation and the civil rights movement to the present day.
“What this is being driven by is the opportunity to create place of memory and remembrance on the actual site of the first footfall of 40 percent of enslaved Africans in America,” Appelbaum said.
Wilburn Johnson, the chairman of the museum board, says the story the museum will tell will not only resonate in the region “but also across this country and across the world.”