The first thing I notice as I arrive at the International African American Museum is the Wall of Departure. At first impression, it’s a straightforward ship’s manifest of names and ages — but that’s far from the reality. This is a human shopping list: a rundown of African slaves about to cross the Atlantic in barbaric conditions, for a life in bondage. Across the atrium, the Wall of Arrival tells a different story. Those lucky enough to survive the horrors of the six-week voyage to Charleston were rechristened with condescending nicknames such as ‘Friday’ or ‘Big Sam’. Their true identities — like their freedom — were now an ocean away.
In its early 19th-century heyday, Charleston was one of the most prolific slaving ports in North America. So it’s fitting this long-awaited museum, opening this year, will be here, squatting sleek and spaceship-like on pillars above Gadsden’s Wharf, where tens of thousands of slaves first arrived in the New World.
As well as taking an unflinching look at slavery in the US, the museum celebrates the African-American experience as a whole, from emancipation to the civil rights movement and beyond. “Committed reckoning with history is a necessary step on the road to healing and reconciliation,” says Dr Tonya Matthews, the museum’s CEO, as we tour the space. “Charleston is a port city, a global city and a historic city. There’s no better place for our museum to steward these stories that have such national and international significance.”
The museum itself is a triumph: a $100m (£80m) dream that took 20 years to become reality. Across nine separate, light-filled galleries, it dissects everything from the impact of Africans on the US to the Great Migration of the 20th century, with state-of-the-art interactive installations adding thought-provoking depth and humanity throughout.
One of the most affecting exhibits is Memories of the Enslaved, a soundproofed room holding audible first-person accounts of slavery, recorded in the 1930s. Meanwhile, the Center for Family History is a genealogy library, where academics are on hand to help African-Americans trace their family trees — millions of which will be intertwined with the chains of Gadsden’s Wharf.
“I like to describe the museum as a space of courageous curiosity,” says Dr Matthews. “There’s so much history here, so many untold stories. That’s what we’re trying to delve into, to better understand not just where so many of us came from, but also where we’re going.”
The museum is the latest high-profile move for a city determined to reckon with its painful past. In 2015, the Confederate flag — still an incredibly divisive symbol of the Old South — was removed from the South Carolina statehouse, while in 2018, Charleston City Council formally apologised for its role in the slave trade.
The IAAM is an important part of that process, but it also fits into the city’s burgeoning cultural scene. It will join an impressive assortment of museums, including the Gibbes Museum of Art, which underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation and reopened in 2016, and the 250-year-old Charleston Museum, which has an enormous collection of historical artifacts. And that’s not forgetting Fort Sumter, a 19th-century sea fort in Charleston Harbour, where the first shots were fired in the American Civil War and the path to emancipation began in earnest.
The modern city itself, with its incredible architecture, buoyant restaurant scene and lively nightlife, is centred on a thumb-like peninsula jutting out into the harbour. It’s a treasure chest of cobblestone streets, rainbow-coloured townhouses, bristling church spires and stylish boutique hotels. Despite its relatively small population of some 150,000 people, it has more than enough to keep the most demanding travellers occupied for a week or more, particularly if they venture out to explore the garland of golden beaches surrounding the city.
Founded in 1670, Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the US and has a deep history. Facing the dark side of this head-on cements Charleston as not only the most charming city in the South, but one of its most convincing and cultured.
How to do it
Published in the US Cities guide, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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