A 40,000-square-foot museum with a mission to honor the untold stories of the African-American journey at the site of one of the country’s most prolific slave-trading ports opens on June 27 after more than two decades of planning.

The International African American Museum, or IAAM, is located at 14 Wharfside St. in Charleston at the historically sacred site of Gadsden’s Wharf, the disembarkation point for an estimated 45% of enslaved Africans.

Martina Morale, IAAM director of curatorial and special exhibitions, gives a preview of the new African American Museum.

Owned by the City of Charleston, the museum was in the planning stages since 2000, when then-Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. in his State of the City address voiced a need for the museum A steering committee was formed to explore development of the museum, and 6th District Congressman Jim Clyburn became the museum’s first chairman of the board of directors in 2005.

“The city funding portion is $12.5 million, which was used for the design team contract so we could begin the design process during ongoing fundraising. The city managed the state and county funds, while IAAM raised the funds needed for the building and sitework,” said Chloe Field, assistant director of communications for the city of Charleston. 

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“The city managed also managed the design and construction contracts, while the museum managed the exhibitory contract,” Field said. 

Its nine distinct galleries, which are spread across a colorful, airy space on its upper level, illustrate how enslaved Africans and free Blacks shaped economic, political and cultural development through the nation and beyond.

An expansive African Ancestors Memorial Garden winds its way across the museum’s grounds and reflects on the historic significance of Gadsden’s Wharf. Artistic installations and site objects mark the history and archeology of the site.

The garden area, which will be free and open to the public, also provides a space for informal and structured gatherings where African American stories and traditions can continue to be shared.

‘There’s a lot to engage with’

Martina Morale, the IAAM director of curatorial and special exhibitions, said she is amazed at the size and range of the museum’s collections.

“I think we have around 500 items in our actual full collection. We have over 250 items on display. We are a midsize kind of museum, but it has certainly grown,” Morale said.

“When I first started here, there was nothing in the collection. There was no collection. To see it grow from nothing to over 500 objects is quite amazing. There’s a lot to engage with here in the museum from art to artifacts,” she said.

The museum’s galleries include: Transatlantic; Theater; Atlantic Worlds; Gullah Geechee; African Roots; Carolina Gold; South Carolina Connections; American Journeys, and Special Exhibitions.

Morale, who took this reporter on a tour of the museum, began with the Transatlantic Gallery. It features eight large video screens, which take visitors on a journey through hundreds of years of history from African cultural roots to the tragedy of the Middle Passage and on into local and international diaspora scenes and traditions.


The International African American Museum explores the history, culture and impact of the African American journey on Charleston, the nation and the world. 

African Diaspora is the term commonly used to describe the mass dispersion of peoples from Africa during the Transatlantic Slave Trades from the 1500s to the 1800s. The diaspora took millions of people from western and central Africa to different regions throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.

“It’s still and moving imagery of the diaspora. We start with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, images of the water, numbers from the Middle Passage, and then it goes through more joyous scenes of the African Diaspora,” Morale said.

The South Carolina Connections Gallery focuses on African American and African diasporic history that is within and interconnected with the state’s history. It features key artifacts and an interactive map table that highlights known and lesser-known South Carolinians, as well as relevant places and events from early colonial settlement to the present.

“A lot of that information comes from the WeGOJA Foundation (formerly the S.C. African American Heritage Foundation). You can look at some of the historically Black colleges, neighborhoods and churches, as well as get more information about some of the people you see featured in the gallery,” Morale said.

“One particular section is exclusively about the Orangeburg Massacre,” Morale said.

“We have a flier from California that was actually issued, and it just lists kind of the facts leading up to the Orangeburg Massacre, encouraging folks to rally and things like that. One of my favorite pieces just gives you play-by-play in the days leading up (to incident) and kind of how it happens,” she said.

On Feb. 8, 1968, three students were killed and 28 others were injured when S.C. Highway Patrol troopers opened fire on a crowd of protesters following three nights of escalating racial tension over efforts to desegregate the All-Star Triangle Bowl in Orangeburg.

IAAM Orangeburg Massacre

A section inside the International African American Museum is dedicated to the fight for education and the events leading up to the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968.

South Carolina State College students Henry Smith and Samuel Hammond, along with Wilkinson High School student Delano Middleton, were killed. Their images are featured in the museum.

Morale said it was important to include the history of the Orangeburg Massacre.

“It’s our story in South Carolina, but it’s also a story that happened across the nation. It’s still happening, unfortunately. So that’s why we talk about it here, but we also touch on violence against African American people in all the spaces here against Black and brown people. So it was important to give it its own space here, but, again, we talk about it everywhere,” she said.

Morale continued, “We, of course, also talk about historically Black colleges like South Carolina State in more than one gallery. We talk about the joint activism between the historically Black colleges like Benedict, Allen, South Carolina State and Claflin as the students in the 1950s are staging sit-ins and organizing on campus.”

She said the history behind the development of a separate law school for Blacks in the state at then-S.C. State College is also shared at the museum.

“Many of the graduates of that law school became civil rights lawyers and judges who fought against discrimination under ‘separate but equal,’” Morale said.

A signed copy of Clyburn’s memoir, “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black,” is featured in the gallery. Clyburn, an S.C. State alumnus, was actively involved in the civil rights movement in the state and was in his early 20s when he was jailed for participating in protest.

“He’s very important to the museum and the development of it in many ways,” Morale said.

The American Journeys Gallery presents key moments, figures and movements in African American history that are interconnected with the state, including various items connected to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements locally and nationally.

The gallery is organized into 12 chronological sections, including South Carolina’s Freedom Struggle.

“You’ll see the story of fighting for equality in various segments of the civil rights movement. We’re talking about education, voting rights, integration of the school system. We even have media mixed … which gives more information about the various stories specific to South Carolina and the movements,” Morale said.


A full-size bateau, or boat, is on display at Charleson’s International African American Museum.

The South Carolina’s Freedom Struggle section includes donated images from Orangeburg photographer Cecil Williams. He captured thousands of images of African Americans fighting for equal rights over the decades and is continuing to document their efforts through his South Carolina Civil Rights Museum.

“It’s amazing because he gave us free use of his images. The fact that we get to engage with people who are on the wall but are still here in South Carolina and willing to engage with us is always amazing. Iconic images,” Morale said.

Photographs of the late Orangeburg resident and businessman Jim Sulton, who owned a gas station in Orangeburg, were among those images. Sulton, who was also considered a giant in the civil rights movement, was been honored for his activism and continued involvement in efforts to improve race relations in Orangeburg.

“In the South Carolina Freedom Struggle section, we have a picture from Mount Carmel School in Calhoun County as they prepare to board the bus for a field trip. It was a separate bus (for Blacks),” Morale said, noting that the school existed during the era of the “separate but equal” educational system.

Morale said a family story from then-Claflin College’s history is also included in the museum’s Center for Family History, which serves to actively help community members find connections between themselves and their ancestors and others.

“One of the family stories highlighted in the center is the story of Frank Johnson and his son, Willis Johnson, who crafted the woodwork details in the Borough Houses at 35 Calhoun St. in Charleston, which were built in 1852. Frank studied carpentry at then-Claflin College in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and passed down his knowledge to his son,” Morale said.

While there is no historical information specifically linked to Bamberg County in the museum, Morale said there are ways for people to share information.

“We engage with the community and certainly welcome those voices from South Carolina and the world at large. I think folks don’t realize that we also have other opportunities to do digital exhibitions. There’s ways that you don’t have to give us your stuff if you don’t want to,” she said.

The Center for Family History will store photos, marriage records, archival tools and the largest collection of United States Colored Troop (USCT) records outside of the National Archives. All items are digitally available in the center. Visitors can explore genealogical resources and educational tools to help discover more about their own stories at www.cfh.iaamuseum.org.

‘It’s a multiday experience’

Morale said the museum’s wide variety of galleries has too much historical content to absorb in a single day.

“It’s a multiday experience if you want to engage with everything. So I encourage folks to come and enjoy it and come back again,” she said.

The Carolina Gold Gallery, for example, demonstrates the transformative impact of enslaved people who labored on South Carolina plantations and helped build the lucrative rice industry by examining the roots of the plantation system, the skills and knowledge of Africans from rice-growing regions of Africa and how enslaved Africans and their descendants created community.

“We have a plantation model that gives you some idea of what the enslaved people had to do to ready the land. They would clear the land, they would have built the trunk systems to control the flow of water in and out of the rice fields, and then, of course, they would process the rice. Most of that happened right here where they dwelled. I don’t say where they lived because, of course, they had no choice. I think it’s important to tell that story,” Morale said.

“You will also hear some of the slave narratives from the WPA (Works Progress Administration) which was designed to provide relief for the unemployed by providing jobs and income for millions of Americans) that were collected during the Great Depression,” she said.


The International African American Museum explores the history, culture and impact of the African American journey on Charleston, the nation and the world. 

“We have some of our rarest artifacts in here,” Morale said, including a jug made by enslaved potter Dave “The Potter” Drake and Ashley’s Sack, a mid-1800s cloth sack featuring an embroidered text that recounts the slave sale of a 9-year-old girl named Ashley and the parting gift of the sack by her mother, Rose.

The Atlantic Worlds Gallery explores the interconnection between Africa, the Americas and Europe by focusing on the major themes of resistance, revolution, creolization, immigration and the Middle Passage. The floor space of the gallery is filled with historical and contemporary objects, art and artifacts from throughout the Black Atlantic world.

“In one space we talk about the African Diaspora in many ways. We talk about nation building, the freedom movement, but we also have a lot of art, including our Mardi Gras Indian suit,” Morale said.

The African Roots Gallery explores the diverse empires, cultures, historic figures and technologies of West and West Central Africa, which are the areas of origin connected to Africans forced to the Americas.

The African Routes: Diaspora in the Atlantic World exhibit illuminates stories about the influence and movement of people of African descent throughout the Atlantic World over time, from the transatlantic slave trade to the 21st century.

“We encourage people to engage with the images, but also with text and artifacts. The case here is about the divination of the Yoruba culture. It’s one of my favorites. We did a lot of work to find these artifacts,” Morale said.

The Gullah Geechee Gallery provides an introduction to Gullah Geechee history and culture with a focus on the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia. It features a full-size bateau, or boat, a recreated praise house and multimedia experiences for visitors to gain insight of the culture.

“The bateau is a flat-bottom boat that is used to navigate the waterways between here and the Sea Islands for fishing. Inside of the praise house, we have a film that is all about the Moving Star Hall praise house and the Moving Star Hall Singers. The last living Moving Star Hall singer is featured,” Morale said.

Moving Star Hall is one of the last remaining praise houses of the South Carolina Sea Islands.

‘There are a lot of elements’

The African Ancestors Memorial Garden was designed by Walter Hood, who was one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant recipients for landscape design in 2019.

“That was not too long after he designed the garden. There are a lot of elements that really emphasize how sacred the site is, including (earthen) mounds. Think about some of the indigenous burial techniques used in building the mounds. That’s kind of where that pulls from,” Morale said.

“Our botanical gardens include plants from Africa, and our artistic installations are meant to be reminiscent of slave tags that were required by the city of Charleston from 1800 to 1865 for enslaved people who are moving about the city doing various trades. … I think it was 84 known occupations listed on these tags by the time they are no longer in use after the Civil War,” she said.

“There’s also one freedman’s badge. Of course, freedman’s badges were issued by the city in the 1700s for a brief period of time. Not a lot of them still exist today. I think there are three known freedman’s badges from South Carolina to exist,” Morale said.

The garden also includes a stele garden, which she said is meant to emphasize the sacredness of the site.

“Think about the Washington Monument, a place to honor folks. So these (stone slabs) are carved out of rocks from a mountain in Washington State,” Morale said.

International African American Museum dedication ceremony is Saturday

The memorial garden also includes the re-creation of a storehouse that would have held African captives.

“So when we excavated the site, we found the outline of the storehouse. African captives would be held in these storehouses for various reasons, but usually they were offered for sale at the wharf, or in the market downtown. So we recreated that outline of the storehouse here to honor those souls who departed at this site,” Morale said.

She continued, “As you stand here, you will see our granite wall that has a quote from Maya Angelou’s poem ‘Still I Rise.’ On the other side, the granite wall is polished. So you can see your reflection. It’s meant to be a reflective space both physically and emotionally. It’s quite the emotional space, quite a lot to take in.”

The museum is built on the Cooper River, with a view toward Fort Sumter and out to the Atlantic Ocean.

“The palm trees in the garden are African date palms. … So as we approach the water, we’re going to get to our tide pool. What you’ll see in the tide pool is the etchings in the ground. The etchings are figures of the African captives as they were packed into the ships.

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She continued, “This is the site where the wharf ended when it was Gadsden’s Wharf. The sites (listed) on the right-hand are sites of disembarkation, where the captives landed across the Americas, including Charleston. … On the left-hand side, you’ll see the sites of embarkation, the most active places in West and West Central Africa, where the captives were taken and put on the ship and packed in this manner.”

The Lowcountry Garden is another featured attraction on the museum’s lower level.

“Its planters are meant to symbolize mudflats. Mudflats are basically sediment deposits that are created from the tidal flow or from river movement. We have sweet grass growing over here. As you continue to wind around our boardwalk, you’ll see more of the native plants of the Lowcountry and more of the artistic installations meant to symbolize slave tags (a wood version) that were required by the city,” Morale said.

She said the museum’s importance cannot be overstated in the telling of African American history in the state and nation.

“It’s important to tell the stories of the African Diaspora, but it’s kind of our sacred site that makes us unique in that we’re here gathered at what was Gadsden’s Wharf, a site of disembarkation for a large number of African American captives in the transatlantic slave trade,” Morale said.

“Charleston, in general, was a site of disembarkation, but there also isn’t a space like this in South Carolina that tells the story of African Americans, who were the majority of the population as early as 1750. So there’s so many African American people who can trace their family history to South Carolina. So it’s important that we’re here, that we help navigate what starting that work looks like,” she said.

“We also want to balance the trauma of the slave trade with the joys of the (African) diaspora. We’re still here, we’re still expressing ourselves in various ways. So we really try to do that work with this space,” Morale said.

The cost of admission to the museum is: adult, $19.95; youth age 6-16, $9.95; children under 6, free; seniors age 62 and over, $9.95; and individuals with military ID, $9.95.

“There is a way to book a group rate. We will not be offering group tours in terms of like a guided tour. If you have a party of at least 25 or more, you can book a group rate.

“Then tickets are being sold online. They’re time entries. So you want to make sure you get your ticket before you get your flight and your hotel because we’re going to be sold out definitely for that first week,” Morale said.

Individuals can visit iaaamuseum.org to purchase tickets online. No onsite parking is available.

For more information, call 843-872-5352.

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow “Good News with Gleaton” on Twitter at @DionneTandD

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