International African American Museum and the CFH Can Family History Heal

When it opens its doors in 2021, visitor at the International African American Museum (IAAM) will look out over Gadsden’s Wharf, the point at which 100,000 enslaved Africans first set foot on American soil. 

Harvard Professor and Historian, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., explains how Charleston and Gadsden Wharf equate to “ground zero” of the African American experience:

The International African American Museum will immerse visitors in the history and realities of African Americans during slavery. It will also tell stories of their descendants achievements through interactive exhibits. [2] The museum’s Center for Family History already has an online presence, collecting information about enslaved peoples and connecting Americans with their enslaved ancestors.

As a native South Carolinian, I’ve been very excited about this long-overdue project. In June of 2018,  I took myself and husband on a tour of the future site of the IAAM. It’s a short stroll down Calhoun Street from the from Emmanuel AME Church, where a 21-year-old white supremacist murdered nine African Americans in 2015.

At the time of my visit, the site consisted of grass, Palmetto trees, and a view of the Cooper River and Cooper River bridge.

Future site of the International African American Museum

Future site of the International African American Museum  (Photo by Laura Hedgecock)

 

Gadsden Wharf

Future view of the IAAM. Photograph by Laura Hedgecock.

Undoubtedly, the IAAM will educate. But its mission doesn’t end there. Its plans to facilitate understanding between disparate groups. It will do that through multimedia exhibits which honor the Africans who were brought to Charleston in chains. It will provide historical context of slavery and the backdrops of African Americans.

Can Family History heal?

On February 27, 2019, on the opening day of the RootsTech genealogy and technology conference, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced their gift of $2 million to the IAAM’s Center for Family History (CFH).

The CFH will be a one of a kind, unprecedented research center with a special focus on African American genealogy. The  narratives and records of enslaved peoples will allow descendants of enslaved individuals to discover their own stories.

The LDS church unquestionably means their donation to promote healing. For descendants of enslaved individuals, finding ancestors can be difficult. The LDS church’s gift evened the genealogical playing field a little, allowing the Center to help individuals discover their ancestors’ pasts. (Read more about the difficulties of African American genealogical research at A Genealogy Problem: Accessible Records of Enslaved Individuals.)

According to Toni Carrier, the Center’s director, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ and the International African American Museum’s genealogical missions align. Each focuses on discovery, connection, and healing. She further asserts, “It’s never too late to reunite family separated by the institution of slavery.”[3]

International African American Museum Bears Hope

As someone viewing the landscape from a position of white privilege, I hesitate to pronounce what will or won’t make a tangible difference in the journey of those seeking to connect with their enslaved ancestors.

However, just as the IAAM illuminates our country’s injustices, it bears a mantel of hope. Hope that the IAAM and its Center for Family History will become gateways for historical information that facilitate healing family connections. That the museum will promote an honest understanding of the institution of slavery that spark meaningful conversations and dialogues.

Martin Luther King III encouraged that hope as spoke about the gift as an embodiment of his father’s dream[4]. It’s also no small thing hat the genealogical community knows that there is work to be done.

The fact that support for the IAAM crosses racial lines also bodes well for the spread of understanding through the stories of African Americans. In addition to the LDS Church’s gift, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s has pledged $1.5 million and Susu and George Dean Johnson Jr. have donated $ 1  million donation. (The latter was particularly gratifying for me as the Johnsons hail from my home town and Mr. Johnson graduated from my alma mater of Wofford College.)

Your (and my) Turn: What you and I can do

Cash Donations

Charter Membership Card from the International African American Museum If your budget is limited, you can support the IAAM with a $25 charter membership. They’ll even send you a nice membership card/

Submit Photos and Documents

If you come across information related to enslaved individuals in your research, please contribute copies of photos and documents to the Center for Family History’s Ancestor Archives.  You can find instructions and more information at https://cfh.iaamuseum.org/contribute-photos-or-documents/.

Furthermore, those of us who are descendants of slave holders, we can (and should) “release the names” of enslaved people by submitting records to the Slave Name Roll Project or other sites such as AfriGeneas, Unknown No Longer,  Sons and Daughters of the U.S. Middle Passage, Coming to the Table, and Beyond Kin Project.

International African American Museum and the Center for Family History: Can Family History Heal? Want to learn more? Visit the IAAM and the Center for Family History’s beautiful website.

[1] “Intro,” IAAM.org, accessed May 8, 2019, https://iaamuseum.org/about/intro/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Interview with author, March 1, 2019, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[4] Speech given February 27, 2019 at RootsTech in Salt Lake City, Utah.

 

 

 

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