Charleston’s International African American Museum announces January 2023 opening date

A museum that’s been more than two decades in the making in Charleston has set its official opening date. 

The International African American Museum will open its doors the weekend of Jan. 21, 2023, museum leaders say.

That opening will come almost exactly 23 years since then-Mayor Joe Riley said in a January 2000 inaugural speech that Charleston had “a duty to build a museum” and to accurately tell a story about the history of African Americans in the city and beyond.

The museum has been rising since mid-2019 at a waterfront site that was once part of Gadsden’s Wharf, a major port of entry during the transatlantic slave trade. Its stated mission is to “honor the untold story of the African American journey at one of America’s most sacred sites.” Well over $100 million was raised to build it.

Museum leaders have recently said the museum will be completed by the end of this year and an opening would be held either in late 2022 or early 2023. This is the first time that the museum has shared a specific date.

“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,” museum CEO Tonya Matthews said in an announcement about the planned opening.

The long-anticipated debut will involve a slate of events, Matthews said.

There will be an opening ceremony and guests as high-profile as the president will be invited, Matthews said.

One reason the museum opted for a January 2023 opening rather than December was to avoid the busy holiday season and potential conflicts for special guests who will be invited.

A gala also is being planned to mark the opening, Matthews said, and over the opening weekend, museum leaders plan to “activate” the museum and garden spaces with performances from storytellers and musicians.

There also will be some after-hours, curator-led tours of the galleries for those who want to learn more about how those stories became part of the museum.

Between now and the opening, Matthews said to expect multiple “mini announcements,” like performers or invited guests who are confirmed or details about how people can remotely engage with the opening festivities. Soon, there will be a form available on the museum’s website for business owners to submit ideas for items that can be stocked in the museum store.

“The museum is stepping into this space where we’re always growing, always changing, always planning things,” Matthews said.

The IAAM expects a lot of interest for its opening days. More than 22,000 people have signed up to be charter members. 

South Carolinians make up the largest share of IAAM charter members. Others are scattered across the country, and some, the globe.

When the museum opens its doors, it will likely have been complete for about a month and a half, Matthews said, giving IAAM leaders time to prepare, test things out and make any final adjustments. Construction of the exterior of the building is complete, and work is underway to install exhibits in the museum’s galleries. 

“We are confident we will have a technical completion before the end of this year,” Matthews said.

Along with its galleries, the museum will house the Center for Family History, a genealogy library focused on African American ancestry research.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, who attended the groundbreaking for the IAAM in 2019 and has been a longtime supporter of the effort, praised the fact that the museum is coming to fruition. He said he is “confident that this museum will help educate its visitors on America’s dark past and inspire future generations through stories of perseverance.”

The museum’s grounds were designed to incorporate the history of the site itself. A 245-foot steel band inscribed with the names of regions from which enslaved people were brought will be installed where the edge of Gadsden’s Wharf was. The African Ancestors Memorial Garden, designed by Walter Hood — a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” recipient — uses art installations, live plantings and a reflection pool to tell more of the story of the site.

It took time to find the “optimal site” for the museum, said Riley, who recently announced he would step away from his active role at the museum.

“It took time to raise the resources, assemble the team and plan every detail that would enhance the experience of being here,” Riley said of the more than two decades-long process. “And it took time because we have been committed to excellence.”

Riley told The Post and Courier when he shared that he was taking a step back that he felt it was the “right time” for him to do so.

“I could not be more proud or more happy or more satisfied with the museum and what it will be,” Riley had said.

Wilbur E. Johnson, chair of the museum’s board, said in the announcement of the IAAM’s opening date that this is an “exciting and gratifying” time for all of the people who have been involved in the museum’s creation.

“The museum opening will represent a tangible expression of the commitment to fulfill this institution’s important and sacred mission,” Johnson said.

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