International African American Museum on track to begin construction this year
Charleston’s place in American history is deeply rooted in the African-American experience. The wealth that the plantation house model brought into the region, thanks primarily to enslaved labor giving landowners the ability to cultivate more cash crops in smaller increments of time, is one of the biggest reasons the Holy City was among the most affluent places in America at one point.
At the center of this history of enslavement is Gadsden’s Wharf in downtown Charleston, the spot where approximately half of all enslaved Africans entered America, according to International African American Museum Chief Operating Officer and Daniel Island resident Elijah Heyward III.
“It’s ground zero for African-American history,” explained Heyward. “Many African-Americans across the country can trace at least one relative to this point of entry. What does that mean for our state? It creates this notion of a point of origin or a homecoming for a community of people that don’t have the luxury of having records or connections to history in a way that other cultural groups have in this nation.”
The history behind the wharf is an integral aspect of the IAAM, because in 2020, the museum will complete construction on top of the site.
“It allows us to have a very pivotal point of reference for history, in a sense that Charleston was once, not only the wealthiest city in the country, but also had the largest wharf in the colonies,” Heyward elaborated on the importance of the museum. “So, there’s a huge way in which the history of Charleston intertwines with the period of enslavement, which is really horrific. But, acknowledging the history in a way that offers context is important to help us to build bridges of understanding and hopefully racial equity and justice in the future.”
While Gadsden’s Wharf is a focal point for the IAAM, the museum will emphasize black history in America, showing the role it played in the story of the country. Programming and exhibits will run from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, a Center for Family History, which will give tools to African-Americans looking to research their family history, and a Gullah-Geechee gallery.
“The museum itself is going to be a vibrant institution,” said Heyward. “I think it’s also important to connect the narrative to what is considered the African diaspora. Considering the fact that African identity is found in the Caribbean, Africa, and other parts of the world, there are things that unite a cultural identity in different ways and practices.”
The International African American Museum has received much publicity since 2015, after the Mother Emanuel Shooting left nine African-American men and women dead at the hands of a sworn white supremacist. In response, former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, one of the museum’s initiators, said that there was a clear need for the IAAM. Riley expected $75 million for the project, and many Charleston area businesses and individuals have stepped up to help, including several with Daniel Island ties. Among them, philanthropist and entrepreneur Ben Navarro and his company Sherman Financial Group. Navarro, who took over ownership of Daniel Island-based Charleston Tennis LLC, as well as operations of the Family Circle Tennis Center and the Volvo Car Open last year, pledged $250,000 in support of the project.
In June 2016, Blackbaud pledged $1 million to the museum for its Digital Media Lab.
“It was our first million dollar gift, ever, in the history of the company,” said Blackbaud’s Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and Philanthropy Rachel Hutchisson. “They say, now, that it was a really pivotal gift in helping them build that momentum that they needed to close the gap in their funding.”
Longtime Charleston leaders and co-founders of Daniel Island-based Benefitfocus, Shawn Jenkins and Mason Holland, and their families have generously pledged $500,000 to the IAAM’s Founders Fund.
“Given our backgrounds in the technology space, we see the value and potential of this museum,” said Jenkins, in an IAAM press release about the gift. “This institution will evolve over time, serving generations to come. It’s exciting to support a cultural landmark that will serve this community and its families far into the future.”
In 2018, the first and largest fundraising goal was met. Currently, the IAAM is securing funding for programming ($8 million) and long-term support and stability ($10 million). Construction is expected to commence this year and finish in 2020.
For Heyward, the swells of cash that have come into the museum represent a sense of togetherness.
“This is a project that reflects a collective engagement, investment of people from all walks of life,” he said. “We have support from the state of South Carolina, we have support from the local Charleston government and community, individuals rooted here in South Carolina, but folks who are beyond the state and Charleston have all played a really interesting role. I think that it speaks to the ability for community to come together behind something positive.”