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Celebrate Black History Month with an IAAM Membership, Honor your ancestors. Learn their stories. Walk in their footsteps.

Building and
Garden

Designed by landscape architect and MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow Walter Hood, the African Ancestors Memorial Garden comprises a set of conceptual gardens that unfurl beneath our building.

HARNESSING THE
POWER OF PLACE

Our building hovers 13 feet above the historic site of Gadsden’s Wharf, the port of arrival for nearly half of all enslaved Africans brought to North America.

Always free and
open to the public

Together with our building, the landscape honors the hallowed ground of Gadsden’s Wharf and the legacy of those who disembarked there—granting opportunities for the land to tell its story while offering new significance and experiences for visitors. Always free and open to the public, the African Ancestors Memorial Garden is at once a gathering place, a destination of its own, and respite for museum guests before and after their visit.

Language of Land and Water

When people move, they carry with them cultural knowledge, symbolic ties, and physical pieces of lands left behind.

In designing the African Ancestors Memorial Garden, Walter Hood thoughtfully considered multifaceted ways to link Charleston to a network of global sites of memory connected by the history of slavery and its legacies. From its Palm Grove studded with Canary Island Palms, a reflection of the African Diaspora, to its Sweetgrass Field filled with waist-high grasses that serve as the foundation of Lowcountry basket weaving traditions, each feature of the African Ancestors Memorial Garden tells its own story.

Tide Tribute

One of the most defining elements of the gardens is the Tide Tribute, an ephemeral presentation of the “Brookes” slave ship diagram, a now-famous depiction of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’s profoundly inhumane transport conditions.

The Tide Tribute is grounded in relief figures, each representative of a man, woman, or child who laid shackled in the bellies of ships that were once anchored steps away in Charleston Harbor. As the tide changes, the shallow pool of water fills and empties, covering and revealing the shapes of those it honors. Bordered by the historic line of Gadsden’s Wharf, the tribute emphasizes the fluidity of the past, present, and future.

OUR
BUILDING

Our building and gardens work in tandem to tell stories of the African diaspora and create spaces where visitors can confront profound emotions and share in lively new traditions. With its floor to ceiling windows, the building grants a visual through-line between the city of Charleston and its harbor, while carefully contextualized design elements deftly connect past with present.

The Stories Behind Our Building

Architect Pei Cobb Freed & Partners thoughtfully selected materials for our historic site, including a warm brick exterior on the north and south sides and clear glass enclosures on the east and west ends, affording visitors sweeping views of the Charleston Harbor and the city itself.
Recognizing that the building should not touch the hallowed ground on which it is set, it is instead hoisted by 18 cylindrical columns clad in oyster shell tabby, a historically significant material that was also used as paving in portions of the ground plane. Inside the building, furniture sourced and designed by architect of record Moody Nolan doubles as functional art. As visitors move about the museum, bench seating crafts a conceptual passage through time, telling visual stories from a rich African ancestry, to the powerful spirit of resilience, to the enduring cultural traditions that are treasured today.
“. . .a purposefully unrhetorical work of architecture quietly affirming the power of place, as it shelters and frames a richly articulated work of landscape art.”
“The history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is woven throughout the museum, celebrating the resilience and perseverance of African Americans—it has been our honor to shape this story.”