The New Museum in Charleston Explores the City’s Part in Slave Trading History

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International African American Museum (IAAM)

Charleston, South Carolina, typically conjures images of its picturesque harborfront promenade dotted with pastel-colored antebellum mansions worth millions, as well as the city’s esteemed restaurants offering mouth-watering local favorites such as she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, and fried green tomatoes.

Recently, the city’s cultural landscape has been enhanced by the opening of a state-of-the-art building in the downtown area, amidst significant excitement. This building is poised to become one of the most influential cultural landmarks in the city, and indeed, in the country.

The International African American Museum (IAAM) has been established on the grounds of Gadsden’s Wharf, which was the most significant slave auction site in the United States between 1772-1808.

On June 27, 2023, the museum’s inaugural event was presided over by Phylicia Rashad, a former Cosby Show actress and the current dean at Howard University. The Obamas sent virtual greetings, while other well-known personalities graced the occasion.

Two decades in the making and built at a cost of over $100 million, IAAM is finally open, with the team eagerly awaiting visitors from around the globe.

Visitors are welcomed to experience the interweaving of trauma and joy that pervades the exhibitions at IAAM, according to the museum’s president and CEO, Tonya Matthew.

IAAM is unique among African American museums due to its historic location. Over 40 percent of enslaved Africans who arrived in the U.S. were auctioned off here before being sent to plantations and farms nationwide.

Historians speculate that about 90 percent of all African Americans can trace back at least one ancestor to this location. For example, Michelle Obama links two of her ancestors to South Carolina; both were born into slavery in this state.

The selection of this site for IAAM and the investment it represents are part of a broader acknowledgment of Charleston’s dark past. For example, the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse in 2015, and three years later, the Charleston City Council formally apologized for the city’s involvement in slavery.

Charleston is now starting to reconsider the romanticized view of plantations that is often propagated in mainstream narratives. For instance, McLeod Plantation is one of the few plantations in the country that highlights the stories of those enslaved there, providing a more nuanced account of the past.

This shift towards confronting the uncomfortable truths of history is not universally well-received. However, the number of annual visitors to McLeod is increasing, and other plantations in Charleston are also beginning to adopt this approach.

Despite the difficult past that IAAM reveals, the museum has been seen as a source of healing, especially for the local Gullah Geechee community, who have retained a unique culture with direct links back to Africa.

Among this community is Tia Clark, who founded “Casual Crabbing with Tia,” one of Airbnb’s top-rated experiences globally. She is looking forward to visiting IAAM with her family, as she believes it will be an emotional experience that will further connect her to her Gullah Geechee roots.

By situating IAAM at this historic wharf, the museum connects African Americans back to their roots. The water, which once brought Africans here in chains, now serves as a bridge to self-healing and a deeper understanding of their heritage.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about International African American Museum (IAAM)

What is the International African American Museum (IAAM)?

The IAAM is a newly opened cultural institution in Charleston, South Carolina. It is located on the grounds of Gadsden’s Wharf, the largest slave auction site in the United States from 1772 to 1808. The museum explores the history and culture of African Americans, with a special focus on the transatlantic slave trade.

Why is the location of the IAAM significant?

The museum is situated on Gadsden’s Wharf, which was the largest slave auction site in the United States during the late 18th century. Historians estimate that over 40 percent of all enslaved Africans brought to the U.S. were sold into slavery here. This location makes the IAAM uniquely positioned to confront and explore this painful history.

How is Charleston confronting its role in the history of slavery?

In recent years, Charleston has made efforts to address its history with slavery. The city removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse in 2015, and the Charleston City Council formally apologized for the city’s role in slavery in 2018. The opening of IAAM is another significant step in this ongoing process.

Who is Tia Clark, and how is she connected to the museum?

Tia Clark is a native Charlestonian of Gullah Geechee heritage. She founded “Casual Crabbing with Tia,” an experience highly rated on Airbnb. Clark sees the IAAM as an emotional journey that will help her connect further to her Gullah Geechee roots.

What is the goal of the International African American Museum (IAAM)?

The goal of the IAAM is to educate visitors about the interwoven sensations of trauma and joy in African American history and culture. By doing so, the museum hopes to promote understanding, healing, and self-discovery among African Americans and people of all backgrounds.

More about International African American Museum (IAAM)

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SashaGreene July 22, 2023 - 12:49 am

Didn’t know about the Gullah Geechee people before this. So fascinating. Thanks for sharing their story!

CarolineT July 22, 2023 - 2:39 am

wow, this article got me. Anyone else teared up a bit reading this? Or just me…

JakeHansen July 22, 2023 - 5:15 am

Incredible piece. its about time we start to face our history, however harsh it may be. Hats off to Charleston.

Maggie_S July 22, 2023 - 1:29 pm

This IAAM museum sounds like an incredible journey thru time and i gotta say i feel a visit coming on soon…

HistoryBuff_84 July 22, 2023 - 7:37 pm

A building over 100 million and 20 years in the making! Now thats what i call an investment in history and education.


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