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International African American Museum sets opening date

Melinda Waldrop

The International African American Museum will welcome its first visitors on Jan. 21, 2023.


The museum is located at the site of Gadsden’s Wharf in downtown Charleston, where many slaves disembarked from Africa. Its focus will be the cultural, social and economic impact of slavery in the Americas and the diverse journeys and achievements of slaves and their descendants.


The museum features nearly 150,000 square feet of exhibition, learning and interpretive space and includes nine themed galleries ranging from African origins to African American economic, creative and social contributions to American history. The museum also includes this African Ancestors Memorial Garden, conceived by landscape architect Walter Hood, which includes art installations, plants and an infinity reflection pool.

“I am proud to have worked with our incredible team to get this museum to opening day,” Tonya Matthews, president and CEO of the International African American Museum, said in a news release. “This museum will be a must-see space of courageous curiosity and authentic engagement with our nation’s history – with African American history.

“Committed reckoning with history is a necessary stop on the road 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 steward these stories that have such national and international significance and impact.”


The museum was first publicly announced by Joseph P. Riley Jr., former mayor of Charleston, during his state of the city address in 2000.


“Our journey has been long because it took time to secure the optimal site,” Riley said in the release. “A site that is called ‘sacred’ because it is precisely where so many enslaved Africans arrived in our country, and many died here. It took time to raise the resources, assemble the team, and plan every detail that would enhance the experience of being here. And it took time because we have been committed to excellence.”


The exterior of the museum, designed by architect Henry Cobb, features 18 13-foot pillars that lift the structure over the garden, stretching out to the Charleston Harbor pier walk. A 245-foot steel band, inscribed with the names of regions from which enslaved people were brought, is being installed beneath the museum at the site of the original edge of Gadsden’s Wharf.


Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor and historian who helped shape the museum’s Center for Family History genealogy research library, noted that “48.1% of all the African slaves who came to the United States entered this country through Charleston. So, for blackness, black culture, the African experience, the African American experience, slavery – however you want to slice it – this is ground zero. I think it’s very important that a great city in the South be the home of a great museum celebrating the achievements, the history, and the culture of persons of African descent.”


The museum’s first board chair, Congressman James E. Clyburn, said the museum is a place to honor and celebrate the whole of the African American experience. “The grand opening of the International African American Museum is the culmination of over 20 years of hard work, and I am pleased to see it finally come to fruition,” Clyburn said. “I have always said that this museum ought to tell more than just the story of slavery and pay homage to the countless descendants of slavery who, in spite of their circumstances, rose to prominence and helped bring us closer to achieving this land’s promise of a ‘more perfect union.’ I am confident that this museum will help educate its visitors on America’s dark past and inspire future generations through stories of perseverance.”


Details about opening celebrations, speakers and events will be released in the months leading up to the grand opening, the museum said.


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