‘A weighty privilege’

International African American Museum president and CEO reflects on role
It’s not an easy load to bear. 
Tell the story of the African American journey in the United States from the beginning. The whole story. In a way that sensitively exposes the truth of the darkness of slavery, but also celebrates the resilience and achievements of a people determined to rise above their circumstances to find hope and joy.  
When Dr. Tonya Matthews accepted the role of president/CEO of the new, highly anticipated Charleston International African American Museum (IAAM) in March of 2021, she knew the task would be monumental.
“I like to call it a weighty privilege,” said Matthews. “... Even when the idea was first circulating, it was just an extraordinary idea, such a big idea, such a heavy lift. You want a place like Charleston. It was growing and in its own kind of rebirth and renaissance, and you want it to fit into all of that ... but it’s also a national museum ... and then, you want to tell the full story. You want to put it in the international context because Charleston is an international city. African American history is an international tale — and you want to do all of that in 100,000 square feet.”
A press release issued by the IAAM announcing Matthews’ appointment to the museum’s executive team called her “the final piece” of a “massive global project that will change the landscape of African American history and its curation.” A Washington D.C. native, Matthews is a thought leader with a proven track record in organizational leadership, strategic planning, diversity and inclusion, program development, project management, and vast visitor and community engagement programs. Before joining the IAAM, she served as associate provost of inclusive workforce development and director of the STEM Innovation Learning Center at Wayne State University in Detroit. 
The months that have followed her arrival in Charleston last year have been “a whirlwind,” said Matthews, as visions of both the structure and design of the IAAM facility, as well as its exhibits and features, are coming to fruition after more than two decades of planning. 
“We are finally at the space where all of our different timelines and all of our processes are finally coming together,” she added.
With more than $100 million in donations and some 20,000 charter members already on board, the IAAM is on track to be completed and opened later this year. 
“We are still in that space of building the plane while flying,” said Matthews. “Everything is happening!”
The location selected for the museum is Gadsden’s Wharf on the Charleston Harbor, where thousands of enslaved men, women and children first arrived in South Carolina as part of the transatlantic slave trade more than 200 years ago. When the doors of the IAAM open, they will be ready, as the museum’s mission states, to “honor the untold stories of the African American journey at one of the country’s most sacred sites.”
“I know a lot of folks look at this story with an appropriate amount of grief and reverence,” said Matthews. “But I want to acknowledge how far we’ve come, that we’re willing to speak the name of this space, that we’re willing to say Gadsden’s Wharf, and this is what this place was.” 
“We decided to pause and name the space, to name the tragedy,” she continued. “... But in doing this, it becomes a space of joy and reclamation.”
In an intentional and symbolic gesture, the physical building is elevated over the site and does not sit on the ground itself. Other design elements include honoring the water and those who made the “Middle Passage” by offering an infinity pool for reflection and opening up views of the harbor. 
“You’ve got artistic illustrations that talk about the weight and the heaviness and the horror of that site,” added Matthews. “.. But then you’ve also got elements that talk about the life, the joy and the resilience of the space, such as our ethno-botanical gardens and our Maya Angelo inscription ‘And still I rise.’ ”
Matthews is both humbled and lifted by the range of support the IAAM has received thus far. She hopes the facility will prompt visitors to ask more questions and continue to educate themselves about the African American experience, especially in light of today’s conversations about race.
“No one can deny that right now is an incredible time,” she said. “... This renewed interest in ‘OK, history, tell us what we missed’ is kind of a dreamscape for an organization to come up like this. I’m really excited and really motivated to get (it) open and to get it done right — and well.” 
On opening day, Matthews said her first thought will be about her mother, who will be at her side for the festivities, and knowing she has made her proud. 
“My second thought will be, ‘Great! It’s built! Now we’ve got work to do.’ ”
What: "Behind-the-scenes" at the International African American Museum with guest speaker Dr. Tonya Matthews, IAAM president/CEO 
When: Tuesday, Feb. 15, 7-8 p.m.
Where: Church of the Holy Cross Parish Hall, 299 Seven Farms Drive, Daniel Island 
Details: Learn about the museum’s timeline for completion, the inspiration behind its design, the exhibits it will feature, and more. Hosted by the Daniel Island Historical Society. Free. All are welcome. For 
more information, visit dihistoricalsociety.com.


Daniel Island Publishing

225 Seven Farms Drive
Unit 108
Daniel Island, SC 29492 

Office Number: 843-856-1999
Fax Number: 843-856-8555


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