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Preparing to Open, Charleston International African American Museum Names CEO

Dr. Tonya M. Matthews
Courtesy of the IAAHM
Dr. Tonya M. Matthews named CEO of the International African American Museum in Charleston

As the new International African American Museum begins to take shape along the banks of the Cooper River in Charleston, so does its leadership.

Dr. Tonya M. Matthews has been named the International African American Museum's new chief executive.

The 46-year-old Washington, D.C. native brings diverse experience to help share the stories of African Americans enslaved in this nation.

Matthews has led history museums, as well as initiatives in education and diversity. She is a biomedical engineer with degrees from Duke and John Hopkins Universities. She’s also a published poet.

In a prepared IAAM statement, Matthews said she is “humbled and compelled” to take on this role, calling it her greatest mission.

She served as the Vice President of the Cincinnati Museum Center, the largest cultural institution in that city. There she oversaw a budget of $27.5 million dollars and was a member of a leadership team that integrated the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center into the museum center.

Matthews also served as acting Director of Inclusion for the American Alliance of Museums, managing several museums in natural history, science and a children’s museum.

Among her greatest accomplishments, was a partnership with the National Museums of Kenya which connected middle school students in Cincinnati with their peers in Africa. It’s a program she’d like to emulate at the International African American Museum in Charleston.

Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley who envisioned the International African American Museum some 20 years ago said in the IAAM statement his thrilled.

“We had a lengthy search process and so it took a good while, but we’ve come up with a great CEO.”

It’s been 17 months since the city broke ground on the site at Gadsden’s wharf. That was the first destination for an estimated 100,000 Africans during the peak of the international slave trade.

Matthews said in the IAAM statement she is proud to serve as a steward of “this sacred site and the often-silenced stories of American history, both the horrific and the victorious”.

The museum is expected to start welcoming visitors in 2022.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.