The Charleston Maritime Museum was packed Thursday with a who’s who of community leaders, as well as local and state dignitaries. Former, long time Charleston City Mayor Joe Riley could barely contain his excitement as he stepped up to the podium.
“Today we’ve asked all of you to join us to tell you that the dream of the International African American Museum shared by so many will be a reality,” he said. “We have met our $75 million fundraising goal.”
The entire room erupted in applause. A once distant goal had finally been met, and the future of a museum honoring the lives and contributions of slaves no longer seemed so distant after all.
“When we announced that number many years ago, it was daunting to say the least,” said Riley following the ceremony. “Many thought it was unattainable.”
But the city's longest serving mayor never doubted it. He recently stepped down from office after 40 years and has been working tirelessly on a museum he first dreamed about 18 years ago.
"It was our duty to create this museum," he told the crowd. "We owe this to those who came here shackled in the bottom of ships in intolerable circumstances and their descendents who built this city and who built our country."
One man who knows the history all too well is museum president and CEO Michael Moore. His great, great, great grandmother arrived at the site where the museum will be built, Gadsden’s Wharf. It’s where nearly half of all African slaves were brought to this nation. What’s more, he is the great, great grandson of Robert Smalls, a slave who gained his freedom by commandeering a confederate ship and turning it over to the Union in the Charleston Harbor. He later went on to serve the state as a politician. It’s quite a lineage.
“I feel compelled to do this,” said Moore. “I almost feel like my ancestors are sort of pushing me and leading me and guiding me to help build this.”
The final donor who pushed the museum’s fundraising efforts over the finish line with his pledge also has ties to Gadsden’s Wharf. Charleston native Herbert L. Drayton III says his family came to this nation through the Wharf as well, and were once enslaved at Middleton Place rice plantation. He admits he teared up as he was publically thanked for his contribution.
"I hoped no tears would fall before he asked me to stand up," he said.
Drayton grew up on the city’s eastside and hopes children who visit the museum will not only learn about their shared past, but be inspired to create a shared future.
"I hope they will look back on history and see the sacrifces that people made for them or learn a little bit about what they can do today," he said. "And how what they do today impacts tomorrow."
The International African American Museum is expected to break ground next spring and take about two years to build.