Waterfront view of the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina

The New International African American Museum Is Opening at the Site of a Historic Slave-trading Port

Ahead of the museum's opening in January 2023, president and CEO Tonya M. Matthews shared her future hopes — and favorite exhibits — of this groundbreaking destination. 

By some estimates, about 90 percent of African Americans can trace at least part of their ancestry to Charleston, South Carolina — at one time the most active slave-trading port in the country. The city will tell this part of its history — and look to its future — with the debut of the International African American Museum (iaamuseum.org) later this year. The focus spans centuries and continents, from the global impact of slavery and the diaspora to contemporary conversations about race and social justice. A permanent collection will be joined by rotating art exhibitions, community programming, and a genealogy lab, the Center for Family History. Here, a conversation with president and CEO Tonya M. Matthews.

Portrait of Tonya M. Matthews
IAAM president and CEO Tonya M. Matthews. Shawn Lee/Courtesy of Dr. Tonya M. Matthews

This museum has been 20 years in the making. What do you hope to achieve with the opening?

I like to say the African American journey is one of the greatest stories of all time: tragedy, resilience, love, war, with a subplot of building a democracy. But it also has lessons we can take forward; if we don't tell stories, we don't learn. Folks have been afraid to peel back the layers of history in this city, because there's pain there. The IAAM is a reminder of how far we've come and how far we have to go.

What exhibits are you most excited about?

A first-edition signed copy of Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery. When I saw that book, I almost screamed. "Ashley's Sack," a beautiful but heart-wrenching embroidered sack given by an enslaved woman, Rose, to her daughter, who was sold at age nine — the needlework tells the story of generations of family being forcibly separated. And a full-scale model of a Gullah praise house, with video and audio from a service on nearby Johns Island.

An antique loom pulley and a Black Panther poster from the collection of the International African American Museum in Charleston
A West African loom pulley, and a Black Panther Party poster designed by Emory Douglas, both from the collection of the IAAM. Courtesy of International African American Museum

Tell us about the museum's design.

Gadsden's Wharf was one of the country's most active slave-trading ports, so the architects decided the structure should be less important than the sacred ground it stands on. It will be a single-story building raised on columns over the African Ancestors Memorial Garden—which includes a gathering space with an infinity reflection pool and an ethnobotanical plant showcase that shares the wisdom African people brought from the continent.

What are your hopes for the museum's broader impact?

We've started virtual workshops with genealogists who help folks identify their African American ancestry. We're also building relationships with museums and, I hope, school programs, in Africa and the Caribbean. Locally, we're working with chefs, musicians, craftspeople, and Black-owned businesses — the IAAM will act as a microphone, teaching people about other historic sites, say, or where to get authentic Lowcountry cuisine. We want to be like a ladder in the community: we lift as we climb.

A version of this story first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Lowcountry Legacy.

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