Introduction to the International African American Museum

Explore our African Ancestors Memorial Garden

Gadsden's Wharf by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

Gadsden's Wharf

Gadsden’s Wharf is a site where thousands of enslaved Africans who were transported through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade arrived on this land. 

Image of slave ship by W.O. BlakeInternational African American Museum

Active from 1501 until the 1860s, or over 360 years, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade affected the lives of an estimated 12.5 million Africans who were forced from their homes and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas.

Charles Town (1762)International African American Museum

Between 1710 and 1808, Charleston received an estimated number of 809 slave ships and 152,000 enslaved African captives on voyages that took an average length of 63 days.

Several historians cite Gadsden’s Wharf as the most active in the importation of enslaved Africans between 1805 and 1807. Ships like the Thomas, arrived on May 7, 1805, with 133 captives. Voyages such as these brought many African men, women, and children to this new land and bound them to servitude. It is both our duty and mission to honor their stories and experiences as we walk in their footsteps.

The International African American Museum by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

Preserving the land and the story

For years, both historians and the ancestors of those who arrived in North America through Charleston have done their best to research, record, and preserve stories of the enslaved.

Signed Jug (1858) by David DrakeInternational African American Museum

Some records were tucked away in everyday items such as jugs or family bibles, others were discovered in rice fields throughout the Lowcountry, and some were even passed down through oral traditions and cultural practices that have lived on long after those who began them.

The International African American Museum by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

Regardless of how they were preserved, each story is essential to connecting to and understanding their journey.

Here at the International African American Museum, we believe in the African principle of Sankofa, which challenges us all to go back and get it. Our mission is to honor the untold stories of the African-American journey at one of our country’s most sacred sites. Though slavery is a crucial part of the story, it is in the middle of the journey; it is not the beginning and certainly not the end.

Tide Tribute by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

African Ancestors Memorial Garden

Designed by Walter Hood, this space is a collection of gardens and art installations to honor and commemorate our African ancestral ties. 

Tide Tribute by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

The design of this space is intended to encourage you to remember, reckon with, and reflect upon the past while understanding that it is our duty to our ancestors to reclaim the future.

Several important landmarks to visit include our Granite Wall Garden, Tide Tribute, Fields, Badge Frames and benches, and our Water Drop Teardrop Planters and sweetgrass fields.

East Yard - Tide Tribute by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

Tide Tribute

The Tide Tribute is sacred ground, a tribute to the many enslaved Africans who did not survive the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. 

It is also a testament to the courage, resilience, and strength of the many who overcame overwhelming odds and horrible conditions to survive their journey; individuals from which African Americans descend.

Tide Tribute by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

Millions of enslaved men, women, and children were transported to and from these ports on slave ships. Enslaved Africans were viewed as cargo, tools to be taken and sold to the highest bidder.

Tide Tribute and Slave DeckInternational African American Museum

To maximize their profits, enslavers would often pack their prisoners as tightly as possible. Beneath the water, these figures represent the thousands of enslaved whose forced journey brought them to the shores of Gadsden’s Wharf.

East Yard - Tide Tribute by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

Designed to mirror the rising and falling of the tide, the tribute pool’s water levels fill and drain at different times of the day. These are the same tides that carried the ships full of captured Africans onto this land as they were brought onto the shore for processing.

Granite Wall Garden by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

Granite Wall Garden

The Granite Wall Garden, is made up of a tall set of granite walls, the outline of a former storage house, and a boardwalk featuring kneeling statues. 

Granite Wall Garden by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

Outlined in a one-dimensional display of bricks on the ground, the storage house tells the story of how enslaved Africans who arrived at Gadsden’s Wharf were viewed and treated. To their oppressors, these individuals were livestock, or animals looked upon as an asset.

Historical records show that during a particularly cold winter season in the early 1800s, over 700 enslaved Africans perished in this storage house from the severe weather conditions waiting to be sold.

We have outlined this space so that their story is never forgotten.

Series of hand-sculpted, kneeling, hunched figures by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

Through the large granite walls that cut across the outline of the storage house, is a series of hand-sculpted, kneeling, hunched figures. These figures are a reminder of those who were lost both in this warehouse and on this land.

Series of hand-sculpted, kneeling, hunched figures by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

The statues are facing toward the water; they are facing  back home. 

Granite wall with Maya Angelou excerpt by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

And finally, to the outside of the first granite wall, is an inscription on the outside. An excerpt from the Maya Angelou poem, “Still I Rise.” “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave. I am the dream and hope of the slave. I rise. I rise. I rise.”

The African American experience neither begins nor ends with slavery. There is much trauma within this history, but there is also unbelievable hope and joy. Maya Angelou’s excerpt on these walls is confirmation that we must continue to rise above.

Badge frames and benches by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

Badge frames & benches

Towards the western side of the building is a series of frameworks. 

Badge Frames by Evan LampkinInternational African American Museum

Cut into the shape of badges, these frames were created to honor and memorialize the enslaved who worked as skilled laborers.

Slave BadgesInternational African American Museum

A popular practice in Charleston during the period of enslavement was for enslaved craftsmen to wear these badges when they were loaned out to other enslavers or individuals who required their skills.

Water Drop Teardrop Planters and Sweetgrass Fields by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

Water Drop Teardrop Planters and Sweetgrass Fields

Along the northern side of the building are the Water Drop Teardrop Planters and Sweetgrass Fields. A representation of Lowcountry agriculture, planting and harvesting Sweetgrass is a partof African American culture sustained by the Gullah Geechee community. 

Sweetgrass Basket (2022) by Delores Jones, D'sweetgrass BasketryInternational African American Museum

Today, Gullah Geechee craftsmen and women continue to practice the art of braiding sweetgrass into baskets, a tradition that is a descendant of African cultural practices and that has been passed down for many generations.

Water Drop Teardrop Planters and Sweetgrass Fields by Sahar Coston-Hardy/EstoInternational African American Museum

At the exit of the sweetgrass field, are the Water Drop Teardrop Planters. These beautiful installations are filled with brush and grasses native to the Lowcountry.

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