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Feb 10, 2022

Inspired by Gullah Geechee History, Yawkey Foundation donates $1MM to International African American Museum
Gift Perpetuates the Foundation’s Longstanding Commitment to South Carolina’s Lowcountry

Charleston, S.C. – The International African American Museum has received a grant of $1 million from the Yawkey Foundation in support of the Museum’s inaugural year of operations and installation and development of the Gullah Geechee exhibition gallery. This gallery is dedicated to promoting awareness and understanding about the Gullah Geechee people – descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the rice, indigo, and Sea Island cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast.

“The museum will have a profound and positive impact on those of us living in the Lowcountry of South Carolina and for our visitors coming from across the country,” said Dr. Tonya Matthews, president and CEO of the International African American Museum. “In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the waterfront, the rivers, and the landforms joined the economies and culture of Charleston and Georgetown. An extraordinary number of captive Africans who began their experience in North America landed in Charleston, and then a large percentage were sold to plantations in Georgetown County. These are people who powered the economy of our nation through their contributions to the agricultural industry of South Carolina, and their stories will be told in the International African American Museum.”

While the International African American Museum will reflect on the effect and impact of the African Diaspora and African American journey on the world today, at its core the Museum will focus on the Lowcountry and South Carolina. The Gullah Geechee exhibition gallery will provide visitors with the opportunity to learn about Gullah Geechee history and culture, including how the attempts to mitigate uprisings in the remote Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia created a new way of life that involved a mixture of various African artistry, spirituality, music, and language. The exhibition will also highlight the perseverance of the Gullah Geechee people through their history of activism and organizing, as well as examine the contemporary issues facing them today.

The Yawkey Foundation’s generous gift will be recognized by the museum in the Gullah Geechee exhibition gallery, which is one of eight core galleries within the International African American Museum. The International African American Museum will open its doors at the end of 2022.

Maureen H. Bleday, CEO and trustee of the Yawkey Foundation, commented, “Throughout his lifetime, Tom Yawkey had a great love for the Lowcountry region’s residents, history, natural beauty, and culture. The trustees are honored to support the International African American Museum’s mission of illuminating the African American journey through the lens of the Lowcountry, and in particular, the opportunity to provide visitors with an in-depth look at the remarkable Gullah Geechee culture in this gallery. This partnership will be a meaningful complement to the ongoing archeological research which has been underway for decades at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center’s immaculately preserved former Gullah Geechee Fishing Village on South Island.” 

In 1925, Tom Yawkey inherited property along the Georgetown County coast which his uncle had originally purchased in 1914; this formed the foundation of Tom and his wife Jean’s deep lifetime connection to the Lowcountry. Upon Tom Yawkey’s death, the land was donated to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), and it became the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center (TYWC). 

The Yawkey Foundation’s gift to the International African American Museum perpetuates the Foundation’s longstanding investments to honor the history and legacy of this land and the generations of individuals and families who resided on the property. In cooperation with long-time, multi-generational residents, SCDNR archaeologists are continuing their work at the TYWC, conducting archival, oral history, and archaeological research on a former Gullah Geechee Fishing Village on the property. The TYWC receives support from the Yawkey Foundation for continued maintenance and upkeep to provide world-renowned research and education programs through its marshes, marine wetland, forests, and sandy beaches. 

The International African American Museum (IAAM) explores cultures and knowledge systems retained and adapted by Africans in the Americas and the diverse journeys and achievements of these individuals and their descendants in South Carolina, the United States, and throughout the African Diaspora. IAAM is a champion of authentic, empathetic storytelling of American history and is thus one of the nation’s newest platforms for the disruption of institutionalized racism as it evolves today. Set to open in late 2022, IAAM is positioned to honor the untold stories of the African American journey from Charleston, S.C., at the historically sacred site of Gadsden’s Wharf and beyond. For more information, please visit or call 843-872-5352. 

The Yawkey Foundation is dedicated to perpetuating the philanthropic legacy of Tom Yawkey and Jean Yawkey, whose eight decades of quiet generosity supported individuals and families in the communities that were closest to their hearts — Massachusetts and Georgetown County, South Carolina. Having awarded more than $530 million to-date in charitable grants to organizations focused on health care, education, human services, youth and amateur athletics, arts and culture, and conservation and wildlife, the Yawkey Foundation is committed to preserving and sustaining the charitable values of the Yawkeys by investing in nonprofits that provide resources, opportunity, and dignity to the vulnerable and underserved. For more information, please visit