‘We honor this power of place’

International African American Museum president shares museum’s magic
The stories behind the stories.
That’s what audience members gathered at the Daniel Island Speaker Series were promised when Dr. Tonya Matthews, president and CEO of the International African American Museum (IAAM), took to the podium April 24 at a packed-house inside the Daniel Island Club.
And she did not disappoint.
Dressed in bold, beautiful colors reflective of the African heritage celebrated at the museum, the engaging and enthusiastic Matthews brought what she called the “behind the scenes magic” of the IAAM to the audience.
“We are less than a year old,” Matthews said, recounting the facility’s much-anticipated grand opening last June. “And we have been having a phenomenal time. We are the product of a 23-year journey to build this museum. That’s how long it took us from a public idea and announcement to finally getting those doors open.”
The grand opening three-day celebration took place at the museum and at Marion Square, attracting close to 7,000 people, including speakers from all over the world and international press coverage. Since that day, the museum has welcomed more than 140,000 visitors.
“So come on in,” Matthews told the crowd as she launched a slideshow of images from the IAAM. “This museum wants to tell you a story, and then we invite you to find your own story.”
The hallowed site where the museum sits, Gadsden’s Wharf, is believed to be the port of entry for 40% of the enslaved Africans who came into what is now the United States, Matthews said.
“One of the things you will feel when you are at the International African American Museum is that we honor this power of place, and it grounds all of our stories,” she said. “We also honor the fact that this period of slavery and enslavement is neither the beginning nor the end of the African American journey. It is in the middle.”
After learning the history of the location, the building’s architect decided to honor the space by elevating the building so it would not touch the ground.
“He decided that his job was to design a building for which the ground it stood on would always be more important than the building itself,” Matthews said.
The “first floor” of the museum is a natural outdoor space, complete with memorial gardens and poignant, symbolic art installations that tell the African American story.
“One of the greatest gifts of understanding the African American journey is to be able to understand African Americans’ unique ability to simultaneously hold the sensations of trauma and joy,” Matthews said. “So, when we think about all the stories, we tell them in their full continuity. There is no sad part of the museum or happy part of the museum, we’re trying to tell each story in each of its intricacies.”
The museum houses 12 permanent exhibits that include nine galleries and one changing gallery. Among the exhibit titles are American Journeys, Atlantic Worlds, Carolina Gold/Memories of the Enslaved, TransAtlantic, and South Carolina Connections – all designed to educate visitors about how Africans and African Americans, through labor, resistance, and ingenuity, shaped aspects of the world. One area that also attracts attention is the museum’s Gullah Geechee Gallery.
“I would argue that every American history museum ought to have a little bit of Gullah,” Matthews said. “But here in the Lowcountry, we can have an entire gallery dedicated to that story and to that conversation. This is still a live and vibrant community, a modern community that is still making daily contributions to our world and our culture.”
The IAAM boasts a trove of more than 700 art and artifact pieces, including a contemporary art collection. Another popular section of the museum is its Center for Family History, a world-class genealogy and ancestry space that allows anyone to trace their family lineage, a task Matthews said has not always been easy for African Americans.
“The U.S. Census did not start recording African Americans by name until 1870,” she said. “So what we have discovered is, it’s not impossible. It’s just very difficult and takes a level of persistence.”
One advantage in tracing lineage is military records, particularly those related to pension applications. Matthews said African Americans had to answer extra questions to qualify due to racial bias.
“While we lament the hoops and the mountains you had to climb because of that level of bias… what we also understand is that means that African American pension records from that time are basically mini biographies.”
The museum is also working with the country of Barbados, a stopping point for slave ships en route to Charleston, to access millions of pages of archived records.
“They have the records about where the ships that we know landed here actually came from, and so we’re working to connect our archives,” Matthews said. “And that’s amazing and exciting.”
This summer, the IAAM will mark its first anniversary, and plans are underway to make it an impactful celebration. Among the noteworthy guests will be the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Lonnie G. Bunch III.
Matthews said launching the IAAM has been a momentous journey, and invites those who have yet to experience it to make plans to visit. 
“There is something magnificent about being in space like IAAM that honors the lives of enslaved people and their journey to freedom,” Matthews wrote in the IAAM’s 2023 Impact Statement. “It is equally magnificent to tell their stories unvarnished to thousands of people who leave IAAM inspired, enlightened, and proud.”
Now in its 12th year, the Daniel Island Speaker Series is sponsored by the Rotary Club of Daniel Island, the Daniel Island Community Fund, the Daniel Island Business Association, and the Daniel Island Club.

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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