Skip to main content

Columbia Business Monthly

International African American Museum Fundraising Nearing Completion

May 02, 2018 10:42PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Holly Fisher

Photography by Stan Foxworthy

  About half of all enslaved Africans brought to this country in the late 1700s and early 1800s passed through Gadsden’s Wharf on the Cooper River – making it an ideal location to tell the story of slavery and early African-American history in the United States.

That story and many more will unfold as the International African American Museum is constructed in the coming months. A ground breaking for the $100 million project is expected this summer with an opening date in 2020.

Michael Boulware Moore, president and CEO, has been hard at work raising the funds, and millions of dollars have been donated in the last 18 months. The City of Charleston, Charleston County, and the state of South Carolina have all contributed to the project with the expectation that $25 million would come from private donations. The museum needs about $6 million more in private funding before work begins.

In fall 2017, the museum launched a charter member program with memberships ranging from $25 to $25,000. “It’s an opportunity for people to get some skin in the game and feel a part of (the museum),” Moore said.

A former marketing executive, Moore has a uniquely personal interest in this project. He first became involved when he met then-Charleston Mayor Joe Riley at an event celebrating Robert Smalls, who is Moore’s great-great grandfather. Smalls escaped slavery along with several family members. He ultimately created a life for his family and went on to become a South Carolina Congressman.

Moore and Riley struck up a friendship, and Moore joined the museum board. In fall 2016, Riley approached him about getting the fundraising across the finish line. Since then, donations have come from businesses, individuals, and foundations, including $100,000 from First Citizens Bank; $200,000 from Denny’s; $500,000 from Carolyn Hunter, who owns three area McDonald’s franchises; $1 million from Blackbaud Inc.; and $10 million from the Lilly Endowment.

Moore said his role with the museum has been a “phenomenal challenge,” and yet it’s one he has embraced with passion and a level of gravity.

“I feel a responsibility to my ancestors to create something that pays appropriate homage and respect to their sacrifices,” said Moore.

The International African American Museum will be more than a collection of exhibits and artifacts. It will tell the story of Gadsden’s Wharf and of South Carolina’s history. It will showcase the contributions enslaved Africans brought to the Charleston area, such as methods for growing rice, which became a significant cash crop. Visitors begin in West Africa in the 17th century, following the history and stories all the way to the formation of new African-American communities in the 21st century.

A Center for Family History will allow visitors to fill in some gaps about their own family tree and ancestry. Many African Americans were not counted in U.S. Census reports, so it can be challenging for people to trace their genealogy. The center will host community events while housing a collection of funeral programs, obituaries, photos, historical documents, and family histories.

And, the museum will collaborate closely with schools and colleges on curriculum and interactive opportunities for students to delve into this piece of American history.

“It will be an active, vibrant place,” Moore said.

While the museum focuses on honoring the many African slaves who passed through Charleston, Moore stresses that this site is for all Americans – whether they trace their roots here or not.

“At a 100-foot level, this is American history,” he said. “We’re a tapestry of people from different countries.”

In much the same way people visit Ellis Island in New York or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., this museum too tells a critical piece of America’s past.

“People from all around the world will come here. This is a museum with very large and wide doors,” Moore said.

Moore understands the International African American Museum experience may be somber, but he also hopes people will focus on the many contributions the early slaves had on Charleston and beyond.

“Telling the unvarnished truth can be unpleasant, but we owe it to history and to the people who made those sacrifices… their perseverance and achievement against all odds,” Moore said. “I hope people will leave feeling uplifted.”