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New South Carolina Museum Is Built on the Ground Where Hundreds of Thousands of Africans First Landed In America as Captives

The city of Charleston, South Carolina is set to open one of the country’s most highly anticipated cultural institutions. The property will hold the history of America’s ugliest secret, a wharf that imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Black people who were mostly stolen from the coastline of Africa.

Mock up of International African American Museum (Credit:

The International African American Museum, located at the Gadsden’s Wharf on the Charleston Harbor, has been under construction since 2019, and is set to open its doors to the public in late 2022. 

It holds a significant amount of importance because, according to the Charleston County Public Library, in 1758, Captain Christopher Gadsden purchased land on the Cooper River that his father once owned.

He eventually used this site on the east side of the Charleston peninsula and along the river’s waterfront as a port for other seabound vessels. Within a month of his buying the land, the area was known for slave auctions. People would buy human cargo, right alongside pine wood and bushels of oyster shells.

Though on December 1, 1774, South Carolina voted to stop importing Africans, historians assert that Gadsden’s wharf continued to receive the captives, all the way up to (and beyond) December 1803, when the laws reopened the slave trade.

According to the Smithsonian, nearly half of all enslaved Africans brought to the United States of America came through Charleston’s Gadsden’s Wharf, adding to why the national institution named the new museum one of its most anticipated museums to open this year.

One of the attractions to the new museum is that it will store never-before-told stories from African people, enslaved and free, who populated South Carolina’s Lowcountry. The museum also will feature historic figures and events that outline the substantial role that America’s eighth state played in the transatlantic slave trade.

Dr. Tonya Matthews, the museum’s president/CEO, said that the work that she is doing to get the museum open and to share the history with the masses is a “weighty privilege.” She shared with the Daniel Island News that currently, they have more than $100 million in donations and 20,000 charter members already associated with the museum. 

The Ford Foundation donated three times to the cause, contributing almost a whopping $1 million. The latest donation of $500,000 will go to the IAAM’s first year of operation, funding expenses and activities such as exhibit installations, programming, genealogy workshops and Gullah storytelling programs.   

The year 2021 brought in some hefty donations from corporations and private donors. Bank of America committed $500,000 in November 2021, billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott gave an undisclosed gift last summer and Sony Corp. made a donation of $1.7 million worth of audiovisual products to the museum.

In 2022, the institution received a grant of $1 million from the Yawkey Foundation for the operations and installation and development of the Gullah Geechee exhibition gallery in its inaugural year.

However, the largest single pledge came from the Lilly Endowment in 2017. 

The private foundation, through its efforts to improve the public’s understanding of religion, gave a $10 million lead grant to the museum to help build “its capacity to incorporate religion into its interpretations of American life and establish relationships with and develop programs for churches and other faith-based organizations.”

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