Rendering of the International African American Museum's building (photograph by Ellis Creek Photography, courtesy IAAM)

The International African American Museum (IAAM) will open its doors next January in Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina, where over 100,000 enslaved people were estimated to have disembarked from slave ships. The opening date announcement has been anticipated for over two decades and represents a delay of over a year from what was initially projected at the museum’s groundbreaking.

In 2000, Charleston’s former mayor Joe Riley first signaled the intention for an African American museum to be built and indicated that there was enough funding to begin construction. Since then, over $100 million has been raised for the museum.

Part of the delay, Riley said in a statement, had to do with securing the right location for the museum. The IAAM now sits on what was historically Gadsden’s Wharf along the Cooper River waterfront, one of the principal disembarkation points for the trans-Atlantic slave trade in North America. Riley called the location “sacred.”

The IAAM sits on what was historically Gadsden’s Wharf along the Cooper River waterfront

Construction at the site has been ongoing for three years. The building, designed by the late architect Henry Cobb, features an open air ground floor and outdoor garden space, with 150,000 square feet of exhibition and educational space and clear sightlines of the Atlantic Ocean. Plans for the museum include nine galleries that will tell stories about the diverse diasporic origins of African Americans and stories of their economic, artistic, and political lives throughout American history. Landscape architect Walter Hood, who was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2019, was commissioned to design the African Ancestors Memorial Garden, which features a “gardens within a garden” design that embeds art installations, an infinity reflection pool, and botanical growth within it. A 245-foot steel band beneath the museum commemorates the regions from which enslaved people were kidnapped at the threshold of Gadsden’s Wharf. 

Museum leaders say that it is time for Charleston to have an institution of its own committed to engaging with the nation’s entangled history with forced labor and racism. Nearly half of all African individuals enslaved in the United States came into the country through Charleston.

“For Blackness, Black culture, the African experience, the African American experience, slavery — however you want to slice it — this is ground zero,” Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who consulted with the museum in developing its Center for Family History genealogy research library, said in a statement.

The opening will be accompanied by an opening ceremony and a gala, as well as curator-led tours of the exhibitions.

“Committed reckoning with history is a necessary stop on the road to healing and reconciliation. Charleston is a port city, a global city, a historic city — and there is no better place for our museum to steward these stories that have such national and international significance and impact,” said ​​Tonya Matthews, president and CEO of the IAAM.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.