CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA — Ground is now broken on the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina. The museum, set to open in 2021, will include a Center for Family History that will help African Americans connect with their ancestors.
Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including Elder Terence M. Vinson of the Seventy and representatives of FamilySearch International, a nonprofit family history organization sponsored by the Church, joined more than 700 people at Friday’s groundbreaking.
“I stand on hallowed ground today,” said Thom Reed, deputy chief genealogical officer of African Heritage for FamilySearch International, who attended the event. “It is an honor to remember the sacrifice of the Africans who arrived through the Middle Passage in this location. We honor their legacy by breaking ground for the International African American Museum.”
In February, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints presented a $2 million donation to the museum on behalf of the Church to help fund the Center for Family History.
“This museum will not just tell stories of the past of journeys concluded, but it will also enable the start of other journeys and new stories,” said Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa, who spoke at the 90-minute groundbreaking. “It will enable reconnection of people separated by time and by water.”
Charleston and Freetown are International Sister Cities, and the South Carolina city may be where the mayor’s West African ancestors first landed.
Mayor Aki-Sawyerr said her fifth great-grandfather, a freed slave, made his way from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone in 1792, becoming part of a community known as the Creoles of Sierra Leone.
Earlier this year, IAAM’s then-CEO Michael Boulware Moore said the Church’s donation and ongoing relationship with FamilySearch will allow the museum to enhance its offering in “really dramatic ways.”
Following the groundbreaking, Elder Vinson spoke briefly with Toni Carrier, director of the Center for Family History at the museum; Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg; and Joseph P. Riley Jr., former mayor of Charleston.
Gadsden’s Wharf was chosen as the home for the new museum due to its historical significance. Tens of thousands of enslaved Africans disembarked at the Charleston site.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard professor and historian, said that “48.1% of all of the African slaves that came to the United States entered this country through Charleston. This is ground zero. I think it’s very important that a great city in the South be the home of a great museum celebrating the achievements, the history and the culture of persons of African descent.”
The museum’s Center for Family History will be one of the world’s preeminent centers for African American genealogy when it opens its doors in late 2021.
Prior to the groundbreaking, the Church was one of a dozen faiths represented at an interfaith worship service held at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Thursday evening in Charleston.