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Officials Break Ground on New International African American Museum in Charleston

(Left to right) former State Rep. Lucille Whipper, IAAM Board Chair Wilbur Johnson, Burke student Syasia Coaxum, Congressman James Clyburn, former mayor Joe Riley, Congressman Joe Cunningham, Mayor John Tecklenburg and Freetown Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr
Victoria Hansen/ SC Public Radio
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(Left to right) former State Rep. Lucille Whipper, IAAM Board Chair Wilbur Johnson, Burke student Syasia Coaxum, Congressman James Clyburn, former mayor Joe Riley, Congressman Joe Cunningham, Mayor John Tecklenburg and Freetown Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr
Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley takes the stage for the ground breaking of the new International African American Museum at Gadsden's Wharf
Credit Victoria Hansen
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Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley takes the stage for the ground breaking of the new International African American Museum at Gadsden's Wharf

It's the day former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has been dreaming of for 20 years; the ground breaking of the new International African American Museum.  He says it all began with a book he read in 1998 called, "Slaves in the Family", written by Edward Ball.

"His book to me was as if a once hidden and locked vault was discovered and opened, " he told a crowd of hundreds Friday at Gadsden's Wharf.

"The secret, most vaulable treasure was long hidden and forbidden truth."

Ball writes about the nearly 4,000 black people bought by or born into slavery through his South Carolina family.  He even recounts his attempts to track down their descendents.

Riley found Ball's work deeply moving and admits it was a history, at the time,  he didn't fully know.  It was then he realized he had to build a museum.

"This American structural defect that this harsh history was hidden and fictionalized has weakened the fabric of our country which this museum will seek to repair," he said.

Congressman James Clyburn talks about his vision for the International African American Museum
Credit Victoria Hansen/SC Radio
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Congressman James Clyburn talks about his vision for the International African American Museum

Early on, Riley reached out to South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn for help making that dream come true.

"I still vividly remember that meeting and where we were seated," he said.

Congressman Clyburn remembers too.  He told Riley he had to first ask his trusted advisor, his wife Emily. She has since  recently passed and just the mention of her name brought tears to the eyes of many in the crowd.

"He called me a week later and said Emily said okay.  I'm on board," Riley explained.

Clyburn helped secure federal funding for the museum which Riley says will cost $100 million dollars plus to build.  Much of the money has been raised through donations.

While nearly half of all enslaved Africans came to this nation through Gadsden's Wharf, Congressman Clyburn insisits the museum will do more than share the horrors of slavery.

"This has to be an African American museum because it just can't be about the institution of slavery," he said.  "It has to be about what African Americans are and can be, and will be.  That's what this museum is about."

The sold out crowd, hundreds strong, was a sea of lawmakers, philanthropists and donors alike.  Governor Henry McMaster made an appearance recognizing Riley for his tireless work.  The museum is expected to open in 2021.