Making History: Behind the scenes of the International African American Museum

Local News

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – It began as an idea more than twenty years ago by former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

Today, construction on the International African American Museum continues as an ambitious vision becomes a historic reality. In her first sit-down interview since becoming the president and CEO of IAAM, Dr. Tonya Matthews talked to News 2’s Octavia Mitchell about the progress and takes us inside the monumental historical project.

On the site at Gadsden’s Wharf, historically one of the most active slave-trading ports,
where forty percent of enslaved Africans arrived in the U.S., sits the International African American Museum. The open-access design includes an infinity reflection pool, reminiscent of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

The museum has ten core galleries and one special exhibitions gallery, everything focusing on the international connections to the African continent, the slave trade, an entire gallery dedicated to the conversation about the Gullah Geechie people, and at the far end is the Center for Family History.

Dr. Tonya Matthews, the new president and CEO of the International African American Museum, assumed the role in April 2021. She said the $100 million project has 100,000 square feet of museum and garden space.

“The interior is a football field and a half long, a little bit bigger than that, a nice piece of that belongs to the Center for Family History,” said Dr. Matthews. “We are fairly large. We are going to be one of the largest African American museums in the country. The name of this museum is the International African American Museum. It is the ‘I am,’ because ‘we are,’ and I’m just so excited about all of this.”

Dr. Matthews took News 2’s Octavia Mitchell on a tour to show us how things are progressing and provide a vision as to what will soon be reality. Honoring the past of enslaved people, preserving the present, while connecting to the future.  

She described a sacred area where 700 people died from exposure and hunger. “This space is going to be a granite wall, so you see the structure is there. Inside of that wall, we’re going to have figures folks who are kneeling. On the outside of this granite wall, that is cutting across this storage house is the Maya Angelo quote, “Still I Rise.”

The open-access design includes an infinity reflection pool, reminiscent of the Atlantic Slave Trade.  Dr. Matthews said, “If you look inside the black you will see the outline of echoes of shadows of people. You’re going to see echoes of those who were brought to this spot and who were enslaved. You will see echoes of those who were brought to this spot and decided to survive anyway. You will see that it’s kind of a call to the ancestors that came through this space.”

She describes the garden area: “Here we’re going to have plantings and plants that are related to the Lowcountry specifically tied to African American history. We chose to have a part of the garden to have simulated stay lays. Staylays are also used to mark gravesites and burial sites as a celebration of life.”

The architect’s unique design honors the land it sits upon. “The building he was designing was not as important as the space it was being built upon, and because of that, one of his design elements was even the museum itself should not be touching the ground. That’s actually why he raised the building up so high because it’s sacred ground,” said Dr. Matthews.

Moving inside, we see what will be the Center for Family History.  “We’ll have active research libraries, active research assistants, genealogists here on staff that can help folks. Two halls that kind of look like this and you can imagine, left and right sides this is where we will have our exhibits.  Our objects case, our storylines, our media on the wall.  This is also where we will house our prized artifacts, for example, we have a first edition copy of “Up from Slavery” actually signed by Booker T. Washington. If you’re looking out that way and you’re close to the water, the galleries closer to the water take that home.  We have African roots and routes, which really gets into the countries of origins that enslaved people came from.”

A view of the African American journey in the U.S. and the world through Lowcountrylens, from most prolific slave-trading port to a site of revelations, reckoning, and reasoning.

“We’re going to have a place to celebrate, tell our stories, share stories, listen to the way the narratives connect and align,” Matthews said.

They hope to open the International African American Museum in the late Fall of 2022. Right now, the IAAM is raising money for soft capital projects as well as creating an endowment.

The museum has 20,000 charter members across the nation. Those interested in becoming a charter member can click here.

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