‘I’m here to see the truth is being told’: inside Charleston’s museum of Black history

Sharrilyn Aiken McKinney and her daughter Shaylyn slowly scanned the colorful walls of the new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. As they perused a timeline that established the global roots of slavery in the 1400s until its US demise in the 19th century, Shaylyn paused and snapped an image of an antebellum slave tag, an object common in Charleston during that time. Worn by the enslaved who were leased to work for people other than their slaveholders, such metal badges proved they had permission to move about the city.

Meanwhile, the elder McKinney moved toward the museum’s Center for Family History, where the pair plans to seek help from in-house genealogists to find out more about their Charleston heritage. The mother and daughter know there’s a chance their enslaved ancestors may have arrived on or near the museum’s grounds, built on Gadsden’s Wharf, which received thousands of captive Africans on slave ships. Shaylyn, who self-identifies as Gullah Geechee (McKinney does not), told me she couldn’t wrap her head around the possibility that she may have been walking in the footsteps of her forebears. Her mother was in a different state of mind: “I’m here just to see that the truth is being told,” she said. “They can’t keep it away. I want to see the local stuff.”

McKinney, who’s 71, was not just speaking of the truth about slavery’s violence – which has often been minimized in Charleston’s historical sites – but also about more contemporary injustices. “I wanted to see what I went through, what I lived through,” she continued, referencing the tumultuous years of Jim Crow: white people shooting into her former family home on Percy Street downtown, the integration of the city’s Burke high school, the Charleston hospital strike of 1969. She came to the museum with high hopes to see those happenings reflected in the exhibits.

The state-of-the art IAAM – which opened to the public last month after 20 years of organizing and $100m in fundraising – enters a crowded commemorative landscape in one of the country’s pre-eminent tourist destinations. Ringed by plantations that often double as wedding venues, Charleston is arguably the US city that has most assertively promoted itself as both a living historical site and place of leisure. After all, it is a city of firsts: first colony in British North America to have a Black majority; first to open a museum (in 1773); the site of Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired; and the place where newly freed Black Americans likely celebrated the first Memorial Day. At the same time, the city has largely avoided its status as a powerhouse in the global slave trade, preferring a more palatable self-image that goes heavy on gentility and light on the brutality.

The IAAM opened last month after 20 years of organizing and $100m in fundraising.

For some, the IAAM disrupts what Michael Allen, a former National Park Service specialist and founding museum board member, calls “hoop-skirt history”. They see a shift in storytelling, away from a long-dominant discourse that romanticizes Charleston’s planter class and Confederates. Others are skeptical and doubt a museum can effect radical change in a tourist economy that they say hasn’t substantially improved Black Charlestonians’ wellbeing.

Yet they all are asking questions about what a museum can do and what it can mean in a city and nation that love to remember (selectively), and love just as much to forget. When I asked representatives from the IAAM about its mission and critiques from the community, the chief executive Tonya Matthews sent this statement: “This museum puts the African American story in its full context – from African origins to [d]iasporic connection, from our stories of struggle and trauma to our stories of victory and resilience. The African American journey is a history of many steps – and this museum is one of those steps. This history, this institution is yet another reason to aspire and champion what our nation, what our world can become as we embrace inclusion and equity.”

Narrative repair and revision are a tall order for any cultural institution. And the stakes are infinitely higher in a place such as Charleston, where Black people built the colony and the city under slavery and segregation. Charleston is 350 years old, and stories are like sediment – they harden over generations. Whether the IAAM will be able to chip through those layers remains to be seen.

The IAAM, pronounced “I am” to reflect historical statements of Black self-affirmation, occupies the site of Gadsden’s Wharf on the Cooper River waterfront. At its height, the wharf could host six ships at a time, with vessels often holding between 150 and 350 people. The landing was one of about a dozen Charleston wharves in operation over time, but it got the exclusive right to receive slave ships a few years before the 1808 ban on importing Africans from abroad (within the country, of course, the trade of enslaved people would continue until 1865). With that monopoly on imports, slave traders in Charleston made a final push for profit. Between February 1806 and December 1808, Charleston Public Library historian Nic Butler estimates that more than 30,000 enslaved people disembarked at Gadsden’s Wharf. Though overall estimates of the number of Africans imported to American shores vary, Charleston’s figure accounts for a significant percentage.

Gadsden’s Wharf has tremendous symbolic and historical power, and situating the museum there was an intentional act (and a real-estate coup in an expensive waterfront and rapidly gentrifying city). The decision draws attention to the former life of this place – though sometimes far too subtly. A strip of stone walkway, for instance, marks the border of the wharf, which was uncovered during archaeological surveys. But IAAM visitors may not see the history that’s literally under foot. It’s easy to miss for the glimmering sea beyond, where luxury boats speed along as a reminder of Charleston’s wealth.

Though the IAAM covers the history of Black America from the nascent slave trade of the 15th century to the 2000s, one of its chief concerns is making undeniably clear that slavery was no benign institution. Face the building’s entrance and the museum is flanked symbolically by life and death on its grounds. To the left, grasses indigenous to Africa sway in the African Ancestors Memorial Garden. To the right lies a more somber scene: two large black walls partially enclose five statues of enslaved people crouched in misery. An inscription quotes the British traveler John Lambert, who wrote an account of his Charleston visit in 1807: “Upwards of seven hundred died in less than three months.” Documenting his disgust for slavery, Lambert reported on a particularly shocking incident noted nowhere else in the existing Charleston historical record. When slave importations were set to end, traders held captives in ships and warehouses for months, reasoning that dwindling supplies of new Africans would inflate prices. So many Africans died from disease, malnutrition and freezing temperatures during this price-gouging period that Lambert wrote “carpenters were daily employed at the wharf making shells for dead bodies”.

The IAAM’s directness here is a response to previous dismissals by various people in the local community. Bernard Powers, a Charleston historian and the former chief executive of IAAM, told me about the early days of museum planning when some white Charlestonians routinely derided the idea of an African American history museum. “They’d call into talk radio and make jokes about the museum. They’d say [Black people] already have a museum on Chalmers Street,” referencing the city-owned Old Slave Mart Museum, as if slavery were the totality of Black experience.

Public space and commemoration have almost always been contested, and doubly so in Charleston. As Stephanie Yuhl, a historian and the author of Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston, told me, scions of Charleston’s “best” families began manufacturing their own versions of Charleston history in the 1920s, just as a mayor declared it “America’s Historic City”. Today’s visitors bureau messaging retains this bent, with its trademarked slogan “History Loves Company”.

Those early 20th-century preservationists “were not really focusing on the antebellum; they go to this ‘Cradle of America’ original gentility-aristocracy kind of thing,” Yuhl said. “Tourism became a form of segregation.” They created bucolic etchings of Charleston streets that glossed over slave barracoons smack dab in the landscape’s foreground, and they also established an all-white Society for the Promotion of Negro Spirituals, devoted to studying Black religious music as a quaint and endangered art validated by white scholars. This is what passed for the championing of Black history in early 20th-century Charleston: a willful blindness to slavery’s vestiges and patronizing white observation without Black participation.

IAAM offers a meta-narrative to counter the simultaneous invisibility and omnipresence of slavery in Charleston. The museum’s big story seems to be that Charleston was a major player in the global slave system, though it stops short of making a deeper claim about the global roots of Black American identity. The island nation of Barbados, where slave ships frequently stopped on the way to Carolina colony, sent an emissary to the museum’s private opening; he noted that his country cribbed South Carolina’s slave codes to govern its own chattel. And upon entering the museum, visitors see a bank of striking videos that alternate between sentences declaring the existence of African civilizations; vibrant images of sea and savannah; and names of places on the international slave route: Dakar, Nantes, Oporto. That walkway transitions into the exhibits that highlight the fruits of this international trade and cultural melding between Africans. The Carolina Gold gallery celebrates African African agricultural contributions, including its namesake grain and the region’s special Sea Island cotton.

The International African American Museum documents the creation of a people from slavery to emancipation and contemporary freedom struggles.

Still, this is not the kind of storytelling that some local activists wanted. The mayoral candidate and College of Charleston community leader in residence Mika Gadsden tagged along with friends during a schoolchildren’s preview and later told me that “mere mentioning of a fact is not analysis”. She argued that Charleston enjoys a palatable storytelling that often puts Black people “in a position where we have to perform our oppression. And I feel like the museum emphasizes milestones and victory.” Though the museum is not solely about Charleston, she wanted to see the city’s “rebellious [Black] history” play a bigger role, including more on Harriet Tubman’s daring 1863 Combahee Ferry raid, which happened just miles away.

For her part, Millicent Brown, a historian who desegregated Charleston’s Rivers high school in 1963, cautioned against believing that the museum is a harbinger of progress. She and other community members formed Citizens Want Excellence at the International African American Museum, a group that has questioned whether the museum has done enough to consider the feedback of Black Charlestonians, or to make sure that they reap financial benefits from the museum. “If the museum’s story is based on ‘Look what Black folks have done for America,’ we are not addressing the real issue: that we don’t have to prove anything to America,” she told me. “We’ve moved beyond trying to prove we are worthy citizens. If you’re going to use our history as the conduit for money coming into the city, how can you do that where there is not a place for a person to sit in a Black-owned business anywhere within walking distance of this?”

Brown asked pointedly whether the museum’s economic impact would make a difference to Charleston’s Black community, whose health, income and opportunity lag behind that of their white neighbors. So far, she said, the tourist boom, which raked in a record $12bn last year, has yet to trickle down.

What the museum does prove, without a shadow of a doubt, is the enduring nature of Black creativity. While its exhibits are low on historical artifacts, the IAAM has amassed a museum contemporary art within a museum. It currently displays two ceramic pieces by Dave Drake, also known as Dave the Potter, an Edgefield, South Carolina enslaved man who sometimes signed his pieces with his name and imprinted them with his own original verse. Just steps away from one of those pieces is 1997’s Canisters by artist Kara Walker, who decorated common kitchen containers with her trademark silhouettes. It’s a fascinating coupling: Walker’s jars show children and people in chains while the masterclass dashes about almost playfully; Drake’s ceramic container is the tangible and rare product of an enslaved artisan. In the Center for Family History, the giant face of the painting great Romare Bearden greets visitors. An unconventional portrait of LeBron James consists only of giant painted hands. And one of the museum’s most compelling portraits is the New Orleans artist Demond Melancon’s rendition of Breonna Taylor’s visage, in the beadwork style of the Mardi Gras Indians. That image sums up the greater story of African American history: violence, yes, but also vitality.

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