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Jun 20, 2020

Amid COVID-19, church killings anniversary, Charleston Black history museum keeps eye on 2022 opening

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CHARLESTON, S.C. – Amid COVID-19, protests against police brutality and the fifth anniversary of the mass killing of churchgoers here, a museum focused on the roots of African American enslavement could seem like an afterthought.

Elijah Heyward III respectfully disagrees.

“Our mission in part is to share untold stories of the African American journey that started beyond America, a journey that has impacted our country in profound ways,” said Heyward, chief operating officer of the prospective International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston. “Our goal is to learn lessons from the past that continue to inform our future and offer context for times like this.”

Nearly 20 years in the making, the International African American Museum is being built on Gadsden’s Wharf, a debarkation point for the African people brought to the USA during the peak of the international slave trade in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Despite some setbacks in fundraising brought on by the pandemic, the IAAM remains on track to open in early 2022.

Local, national and international officials attend the groundbreaking of the International African American Museum in October 2019. Jayne O’ Donnell, USA TODAY

The museum will include resources for tracing African American genealogy, including a “one of a kind” Center for Family History that is up and running on the IAAM website. A tutorial on the special challenges and opportunities afforded to African Americans by DNA tracing is available. Another focus will be on the religious, fraternal and cultural organizations formed in reaction to the enslavement experience.

“The connections to the Atlantic slave trade is what brought folks here, people of different ethnicities,” she said. “They came here and created an African American culture.”

For Heyward, the death of George Floyd is a sad reminder of how he came to join the IAAM leadership. A native of nearby Beaufort, South Carolina, and a graduate of Hampton University, Heyward was in Charleston five years ago this week when a white gunman killed nine Bible study participants and left three wounded at a historic Black church.

“It changed my life, and it also changed the direction of my research,” he said.

Heyward, who was studying at the Yale Divinity School, earned a doctorate in American Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with a focus on African American history, popular culture, religion and contemporary Gullah/Geechee culture.

African American art, he said, possesses its own inherent value and is an artifact of African American history.

Do slavery museums ‘glorify suffering’?

Seeing slavery as an event worthy of inclusion and interpretation in museums and historic venues is relatively new.  

Mount Vernon, home of the nation’s first president, George Washington, who owned slaves, began to highlight their impact on the plantation in 1995 by incorporating a “Slave Life Tour.” The historical site’s docents discuss enslaved people by name, when their name is known, their living conditions and their daily work on the plantation.

Monticello, home of the author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third president, acknowledges Thomas Jefferson’s children with enslaved house servant Sally Hemings and includes the story.

Tourism related to slavery has grown across the country as areas embrace, not hide, their history, and as more Americans of all ethnicities seek out their roots. Historic venues feature slave graveyards, slave quarters and more information than ever about the history of enslaved people. 

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington opened in 2016 and is by far the largest African American museum in the country. It cost $540 million to construct the building and the exhibits inside and averaged a record 2 million visitors in 2019. The Slavery and Freedom exhibit takes visitors through the economic, political and social movements of enslaved and free people from the 15th century to today.

“African Americans have a strong psychological need to be in touch with their roots,” says the Rev. James Alexander Forbes. Jayne O’ Donnell, USA TODAY

“African Americans have a strong psychological need to be in touch with their roots,” said the Rev. James Alexander Forbes, minister emeritus of Riverside Baptist Church in New York City. “(African Americans) want to know that ‘I belong somewhere, I come from somewhere, and since I come from somewhere, I am going somewhere.’ We need to undergo attitudinal adjustment.”

The idea of memorializing slavery is not without controversy.

The groundbreaking for the IAAM in October 2019 drew protesters, most of them African Americans, who were part of a group that feared the museum would not place enough emphasis on achievements by Blacks before and after enslavement. 

A supporter of the IAAM shared a related concern.

“What is the benefit of spending all your time talking about slavery?” U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., of Charleston, said in an interview at the groundbreaking. Clyburn said he worried a focus on slavery would cause some people to “glorify suffering.”  

“Suffering is not to be glorified,” said Clyburn, a former high school history teacher, who is the longest serving African American in Congress. “It is to be learned from.” 

Black psychologist and University of Pennsylvania professor Howard Stevenson said learning history, including its lowest points, can help people “navigate racism today” and understand “how trauma is intergenerational and how people survive dehumanization.”

“People use that knowledge to bring statement to their own humanity,” Stevenson said.

The IAAM embraces these points, Heyward said. In an op-ed posted to the museum’s website June 7, he argued that now, more than ever, the museum must remain faithful to its critical mission: “to honor the untold stories of the African-American journey.”

“Although many of the stories we seek to share are informed by love and hope, they are also rooted in unspeakable pain,” Heyward wrote. “We have an important duty in this moment: To continue this long upstanding tradition, this labor on behalf of truth and justice.”

Amora Campbell is with the Urban Health Media Project, which O’Donnell co-founded. 

Contributing: Richard Willing and Rhea Warren