The Long-Awaited International African American Museum

Perched on a historic South Carolina harbor where enslaved Africans once landed, the long-delayed museum is a powerful document of Black cultural energy entering, shaping, and reshaping the United States.

Photography by Sahar Coston-Hardy/Esto

In the 18th and 19th centuries, ships carrying tens of thousands of enslaved Africans landed at Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston Harbor, not far from where the Civil War’s first shots were fired. The ships may have gone, but the site’s heavy history remains intact thanks to the long-awaited International African American Museum, whose quarter-century journey to life was beset by political squabbles, economic downturns, and administrative snafus. The museum, floating ship-like on the harbor in an elegant building designed by Moody Nolan and Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, is a powerful document of Black creative and cultural energy shakily entering the United States.

That fraught journey begins outside, in a tranquil park conceived as a tribute to victims of the torturous Middle Passage. Life-size silhouettes of ghostly bodies packed shoulder-to-shoulder loom like specters in the pavement; they contrast landscape architect Walter J. Hood’s lush gardens of African palm trees and sweet grass from South Carolina. Not unlike Menashe Kadishman’s poignant tribute to Holocaust victims at Berlin’s Jewish Museum or the Field of Empty Chairs to commemorate victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing, the fountain immediately sheds light on slavery’s human toll—and sets a tone of solemnity and reflection.

Photography by Sahar Coston-Hardy/Esto

That tone of survival persists today. When the museum isn’t tracing Black stories old and new across American history (the “African Roots” exhibit cleverly links African spiritual practices to those in Latin America), it reminds one of the pernicious ways racism continues to endure. Around the corner is the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where a white supremacist murdered nine Black people in 2015. Those painful memories are tempered with success—a traveling Smithsonian exhibition, on view at the museum until August 6, honors dozens of Black luminaries, all rendered in vivid portraits by the likes of Nina Chanel Abney, Hank Willis Thomas, Shaunté Gates, and Tariku Shiferaw.

“I want to be part of this idea that folks should be taking trips all over the country to see these great places,” Tonya Matthews, the museum’s president, tells the Post & Courier. “There’s something about a museum that makes it okay to learn in public. It’s one of very few places you can show up and admit ‘I don’t know.’ I want us to be this wonderfully gentle and welcome elephant in the room.” Presenting a balanced history of the African American experience in a fraught context is tough, and may draw ire—but from devastation sprouts triumph.

Photography by Sahar Coston-Hardy/Esto
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