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Opinion ‘No guilt here’: Slavery’s Ellis Island might finally get the monument it deserves

A Denmark Vesey monument in Hampton Park in Charleston, S.C., last year. Denmark Vesey attempted to lead a slave rebellion in the city. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Earlier today, Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joseph Riley handed the baton to his successor, John Tecklenburg, after 40 years in his grand, federal-style office on Broad Street. Such a transition would be momentous under any circumstances. But Riley, who will turn 73 this month, is hardly sailing off to a well-earned retirement. Instead, he’s turning his energies toward making his last dream for Charleston a reality: the construction of a planned International African American Museum at the old site of Gadsden’s Wharf, the landing place for 100,000 Africans who were sold into slavery in the United States.

The museum has been Riley’s work since 2000, when he proposed it in an inaugural address. And it would be the crowning achievement on Riley’s 40 years of work to reconcile Charleston to its complex racial history.

Riley first ran for mayor on a platform that emphasized integration and racial reconciliation. Though Riley has said that leaders in both the city’s white and African American communities encouraged him to run, his message wasn’t a universally popular one. “His early efforts weren’t popular with much of Charleston’s old guard, who gave him the pejorative moniker LBJ, or Little Black Joe,” noted the Post and Courier’s Diane Knich as Riley entered his final year in office. Riley forged ahead anyway.

“In leading a community, what you have to do is be confident that what you’re seeking to achieve, when achieved, will be fulfilling to all its citizens, even if the process is bumpy and there is controversy,” Riley said when I spoke to him in his office in December. “If you get there, those who were uneasy about it or more, when you get there, will be glad you did. … I never picked anyone who wasn’t the best — but [I hired] the first African American police chief, and [held the] first holiday for Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], certainly in the state and one of the first in the country, all those things that you knew eventually people would be glad, just like with now we’ve got the beautiful statue of Denmark Vesey [who was hanged for planning a slave uprising] in Hampton Park.”

The International African American Museum wouldn’t be Riley’s first museum project: In 2007, the city unveiled a revamped museum at the Old Slave Mart, which had its first stint as an exhibition space under the stewardship of a private operator, Miriam Wilson. In its new iteration, the Old Slave Mart Museum is blunt about the realities of the slave trade and the practice of slavery as well as the tradition of slave resistance.

But the International African American Museum is a project on a different scale. Originally planned as a $61 million effort, the price tag has settled at $75 million, with $12.5 million each coming from the city and the county, $25 million from the state, and $25 million that Riley needs to raise in donations. Google kicked in $175,000 in July after the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. And though Riley suggested that the NAACP’s 15-year-long boycott of South Carolina hadn’t had a substantial impact on fundraising, the organization lifted its prohibition in July after the Confederate flag that previously flew over the state capitol came down, a move that might make the South Carolina city an even more attractive tourist destination.

The $75 million figure is a match for Riley’s considerable ambitions for the International African American Museum. The centerpiece will be an elevated one-story space at the location of Gadsden’s Wharf, divided between permanent exhibitions, rotating exhibits and a Family History Center that will help visitors trace their ancestry. In Charleston in December for the kickoff of a nationwide conversation series, the filmmaker Ken Burns, who will be touring the country with Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., described Gadsden’s Wharf as a kind of grim counterpart to Ellis Island. Gadsden’s Wharf might not be a hopeful landmark, but elevating the site to national status would be an important reminder that the United States was both a hopeful destination and a despairing one.

From the museum itself, Riley hopes the museum will send visitors out to other sites, including McLeod Planation and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. He also envisions it as a spoke on the wheel of museums that will be anchored by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture that is scheduled to open in Washington this year, with the national museum sending visitors to regional institutions that explore particular aspects of the African experience in America.

Riley intends for the International African American Museum to develop a school curriculum about the slave trade that could serve the same purpose as syllabuses designed and distributed by Civil War sites such as Gettysburg and Vicksburg. The curriculum in particular is something Riley views as a contribution from Charleston to the country at large.

“It’s very prideful in the community when you’re doing something, making something, producing something, building something that is of value to others,” he told me. “We as a nation just ignored this history. We didn’t think about it. It wasn’t ever presented, and that’s a real defect, structural defect in our society, that we don’t.”

Of course, Riley isn’t the only person keeping Charleston’s African American history alive. There’s also Alphonso Brown, author of “A Gullah Guide to Charleston” and the operator of Gullah Tours — a tart, often funny loop through the heart of Charleston that ranges from the vandalism that drove a statue of John Calhoun to the top of an absurdly high pedestal; to the history of Mother Emanuel church; to the workshop of the late Philip Simmons, a blacksmith who forged many of Charleston’s iconic gates. Brown, who served as an early board member for the International African American Museum, is a highly entertaining guide, and he’s blunt about the squeamishness that characterizes some approaches to Southern history.

“Some people give other tours. Instead of saying slave quarters, they’ll say ‘carriage houses,’ or ‘servants’ quarters’ or ‘dependencies,’” Brown told me when we spoke, sitting in his tour bus, after a December outing. “I ask them about it: ‘Why don’t you call it slave quarters?’ They say, ‘Well, we thought that would probably be offensive to some people.’ I say: ‘How can the word slave be offensive to people? There were slaves! And it happened.’ Unless you’re guilty about something.”

But Brown wasn’t always focused on black history. Instead, he says, when he first started in the tour business, he tried to emulate other operators who focused on the charming side of the region’s past. His first two customers took the tour, and then told him they’d picked Gullah Tours because they wanted to learn about the black history Brown had sidelined.

He put his business on hold almost as soon as he’d started, and hit the books, crafting a tour that makes visible a history of Charleston that’s often unmarked by signage, even sites as significant as the Church Street houses that were the influences for DuBose Heyward’s book “Porgy,” which George Gershwin eventually adapted into the classic American opera “Porgy and Bess.” Brown also has a strong interest in folklore, including the story that a black man lynched for the murder of a white merchant called down a curse on the city that is credited with causing the 1911 hurricane that devastated Charleston-area rice production.

While Riley’s detractors during his first campaign suggested that he was actually black in an effort to slight him, Brown — who takes care to note that Riley was once a tour guide, too — expresses a similar sentiment as a compliment.

Blacks got a thing of saying that Mayor Riley is black on the inside and white on the outside. He’s a fair man,” Brown told me, pointing to the black-owned contracting companies Riley hired for the revitalization of the Gaillard Center, Charleston’s biggest performing arts venue as proof of the mayor’s commitment to equality. 

And while Brown thinks that the International African American Museum is likely to take a different approach to history than he does, he’s hopeful that it will eventually incorporate oral history and folk legends into the story it tells.

They’re doctor this and doctor that, professor this and professor that … But they don’t know the heart and soul of Charleston like the original people,” Brown told me. “What they’re trying to right now with the museum — I can understand that — is create as much factual things, things they can prove without a doubt. That’s what they’re working on now, that’s what they’re focusing on. Which is good. That’s what I would want. And start off with that first, and work from there. Things that you can really find in books, things you can easily document. Then, of course, storytelling comes later.”

But before the museum even gets to that point, it has to get built. And as Riley gave me his pitch in December, he referred to funding and building the museum, along with teaching the history of the slave trade, as a way to reframe the way Americans think about their racial history and their present-day obligations.

“The thing is, there’s no guilt here. No one alive was responsible for that. And no one’s parents, no one who’s alive’s parents were responsible for that. So there’s no reason for that,” he said. “This happened. And it was an institution that the civilized world allowed. Churches supported it. Governments supported it. It was going on. Obviously, for a long, long time, in the history of the world, people were enslaved. It was rationalized that that was okay. So no guilt. Rather, it is a responsibility. If we don’t do it, then we have failed.”

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