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After more than 20 years in the planning, the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, opens with the mission to personalize the stories of the brutal journey Africans endured when they were forcefully brought to this country — humanize their traumas, victories, accomplishments and transformation, up to today.

Exploring the galleries, Gullah Geechee culture at the new International African American Museum

The new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, opens to the public on June 27. It’s located at Gadsden’s Wharf, where tens of thousands of Africans debarked in the early 1800s to be sold into slavery. The elongated, pale yellow brick museum building overlooks the wharf, and its grounds along the waterfront have been transformed into an African Ancestral Memorial Garden, with a shallow pool honoring Africans' horrific journey through the Middle Passage, combined with artwork and vegetation indigenous to Africa, South Carolina and the diaspora.

We explore some of the museum’s nine galleries, which focus on the history of African Americans and their descendants from an international, national and local point of view.

An expansive hallway, with shiny, light-colored hardwood floors greets visitors at the museum’s entrance. As you move farther inside the building there are four, life-sized video screens angled on each side, showing films of various aspects of hundreds of years of African American history.

Martina Morale is the museum’s curatorial director. While touring the grounds, she talked about the vision for the outdoor space.

“It’s meant to kind of ground you in the space. We start with the transatlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage that you see here. We talk about how many millions of African captives were forced from their homelands,” Morale said.

It is said that 1.8 million people died on the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade.

“That is the tragedy, of course, of the passage, that many people lost their lives.” Morale added, “But as we move through the Middle Passage, we start to show some scenes of joy to balance the tragedy that we begin with here. You'll start to see more vibrant photographs of various cultural, spiritual elements of the African diaspora across the world.”

Other galleries, such as the African Roots and Atlantic Worlds, explore the diverse cultures and empires throughout the continent of Africa and examine those connections to African Americans. Flanking those galleries are two black-wall spaces, across the hallway from each other. One has the Anglicized names — like Sally, Sam and Patti —- that captured Africans were given upon arrival in the U.S., painted on its walls.

As you walk to the other side of the gallery, there are names that sound and look very different. This space represents the departure from Africa and includes seized Africans' birth names and ages, documented from ship manifests.

You’ll see names like Houma and Lomi. Their ages are as young as 2, 8,” Morale said.  

The display shows the documented real names of Africans before they were changed after arriving in the U.S.
Gwendolyn Glenn
The display shows the documented real names of Africans before they were changed after arriving in the U.S.

The sounds on the departure side are more abrasive, reflecting sounds heard after African people are kidnapped. And you hear sounds of ships and water.

“That’s why it’s dark, to make you try to feel that experience,” Morale said.

Just as haunting is the museum’s Carolina Gold Gallery, which focuses on the harsh life enslaved Africans endured working on plantations in South Carolina. Some voices and videos are reenactments, but you hear the actual voice of one man who said his grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Fountain Hughes, who was born enslaved in Charlottesville, Virginia, was recorded by the Library of Congress in 1949. Hughes, who was 101 at the time, talked about the physical and emotional toll of enslavement.

“If I thought, had any idea that I’d ever be a slave again, I’d take a gun and end it all right away, because you’re nothing but a dog. You’re not a thing, but a dog. Nothing but a dog.”

Other historical aspects of the African American experience are explored throughout the museum, from emancipation and Reconstruction to the civil rights, Black Power and the Black Lives Matter movements and their impacts worldwide.

Also, people such as tennis great Althea Gibson, of South Carolina, are featured. It was no surprise that Gibson’s rackets are on display since she was the first African American to win a Grand Slam tennis event. What some may not know is that she was also a jazz vocalist who released an album in 1958 titled, “Althea Gibson Sings.”

There are also photos of Bree Newsome removing the Confederate flag from a pole on the South Carolina state House grounds in 2015. And directly across from that display is a picture of Charlotte’s first Black mayor, Harvey Gantt, after he integrated Clemson University in 1963.

For many Charlestonians, a section of the museum that’s of special significance to locals, who pushed to have a major presence in the gallery, is the section on the Gullah Geechee people. They came mainly from West Africa and were enslaved on isolated plantations along the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, which allowed them to hold on to their African heritage through their art, food, music and the mixture of African and English words that make up the Gullah language.

Victoria Smalls is a former IAAM program manager and executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Smalls grew up on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina.

 Victoria Smalls.
Victoria Smalls.

“So I would greet you in Gullah, my first language … translated, 'I’m glad to see you today, and I hope to see you soon in our land of Gullah Geechee.'”

Smalls says that she grew up at a time when there were no bridges to connect Saint Helena Island to the mainland.

“I was made to feel ashamed of how I spoke in Gullah. People would laugh at me, and they would look at me as if I was less or uneducated,” she said. “Being Gullah and Geechee was a stigma. And so, in some educational spaces, it was not to be spoken. In some homes, it was not to be spoken. People also did not understand that it was a living, breathing language. The language is still spoken.”

Smalls is glad the museum delves into the multifaceted history of the Gullah Geechee culture that spans far beyond the Sea Islands.

“We are who we were before we came. All the way from Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and going on down to the Congo — the descendants of the enslaved Africans. And so, within that exhibit, you're going to see how those cultures melded to create this beautiful and unique culture that for generations has evolved.”

The Gullah Geechee gallery includes a replica of the Moving Star Hall praise house on Johns Island — a small one-room, wooden structure with benches. It was there, not to replace the church, but where people sang spirituals, held events and sometimes strategized during enslavement on escape plans under the guise of praise-singing. Moving Star Hall was not the only praise house in Charleston and the Sea Islands, but it is the only one still standing.

There’s a video screen with a documentary on the Moving Star Hall Singers inside the praise house replica. In the film, there’s an interview with the only surviving member of the award-winning Moving Star Hall Singers, Loretta Hunter Stanley. “Everything that I experience in this praise house belongs to me, and this is my land. This is my culture, my people, my community and no one can take that from me,” Stanley said.

Stanley and her five family members made recordings, traveled nationwide and to Canada, and sang in the praise hall on Johns Island, where Stanley still lives and continues to sing.

“When I was a little girl, like 7 and 8 years old, my mom and they used to go to the praise house and sing and shout all night long, praising the Lord. I didn’t know what was going on, but I was there. We was invited to France. We didn’t go because some of them didn’t want to take the plane, but we went to Canada."

Stanley says she’s happy the praise house is in the museum. “I can’t explain it, but it brings joy to me … Look, look, I’m here to see it and I know they up there enjoying it, too. I’m so proud. ...I can feel their presence. Every time I sing, I can feel their presence. That never go away.”

Back in the Gullah Geechee gallery, a large boat sits in the middle of the exhibit space. It represents the importance of fishing to the community and how nets were used. The foods that were cooked are traced back to Sierra Leone. There’s also a large picture of Esau Jenkins, a businessman and activist who had his own bus, which he used to transport children on Johns Island to schools in Charleston. Museum officials say the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington has offered to relocate the bus to display at IAAM.

Carolyn Jabulile White is a Gullah storyteller, Gullah speaker and native of James Island, South Carolina. White hopes the museum will help to better preserve the Gullah Geechee culture.
Gwendolyn Glenn
Carolyn Jabulile White.

Visitors will also learn the importance of basket weaving to the Gullah Geechee tradition as a means of income and usefulness.

“It wouldn't be Charleston without them baskets," said Carolyn Jabulile White, a native of James Island. "Ancestors left that to the women and men on Mount Pleasant. The ancestors left their craft to them.”

White, whom some call the “matriarch of storytelling," looks regal in a long, yellow-flowered dress. In the front yard of her home is a tall bush adorned with blue bottles, which according to Gullah beliefs, are keepers of good spirits.

The stories she tells were passed down to her by her ancestors, and she’s traveled the world recounting them. She says her craft is an important element in the Gullah Geechee Gallery.

“It’s just a part of the history. Black people, they had no place to go. So, the parents had done a sit-down round the table out in the yard to tell the children stories, you know. But that has changed. So, it's important.”

According to Smalls every generation takes on the language of culture in a different way. She says the Gullah Geechee culture is not disappearing, but evolving — and the museum is playing a role in that evolution.

“The importance of the International African American Museum, situated in the central and the center of the corridor is vital. We get to see ourselves as people in a space where museums typically do not include us, in the space where we live or where we reside. And then the stories that are told about who we were before we were Gullah.”

Not far from the Gullah Geechee Gallery, charter members Jennifer and C. Strayhorn from Missouri walk up and stop in front of a large black and white photo of Frazier Baker’s wife and children. Baker was the first African American elected postmaster in 1897 in Lake City, South Carolina. He and his baby daughter were killed soon afterward in 1898 when a white mob attacked their home with the family inside. Shaking her head, Jennifer Strayhorn had this reaction to the museum.

“It’s made me cry. It's made me happy. It's made me feel incredibly good about who God made us to be. And so it's been an incredible time just being able to walk through here and see it. It is long overdue for our history to be told from our perspective and our vantage point and to be able to get this out to the world. And particularly our current generation, to know that they have some rich ancestry afforded to tenacity, creativity, ingenuity, all of these things that we see in them.”

Our three-part series will conclude with a look at some of the challenges organizers faced over the past 20 years while creating the museum and criticisms from some Charlestonians about the final product.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.