Charleston’s New Museum Focused on Black History Is a Moving Must-See

The powerful exhibits and groundbreaking genealogy library sit on land that was once America’s largest slave port.

International African American Museum Charleston
Photo by Greg Noire, courtesy of International African American Museum
Photo by Greg Noire, courtesy of International African American Museum

After more than two decades of planning and preparation, Charleston’s International African American Museum will finally open its doors to the public on June 27. Set at the site of the former Gadsen’s Wharf—where almost half of the enslaved Africans entered this country—the new institution is a deeply moving look at the historical and cultural impact of slavery.

The museum is made up of 12 permanent exhibitions that share untold stories of African Americans through a variety of educational, artistic, and immersive displays. Highlights include a digital table map that provides a geographic understanding of African-American history in South Carolina, as well as an immense LED installation that focuses on Black Atlantic interconnections.

Photo by Devon Sayers

There’s also a 3,000-square-foot rotating exhibit space, which will house an exhibit called Follow the North Star that explores the theme of literal and figurative mobility throughout African American history for the museum’s launch.

Another attraction that sets this historic space apart is the groundbreaking Center for Family History, an extensive genealogy library with digital versions of historical photos, marriage and military records, and other archival resources for anyone looking to uncover information about their heritage that may have otherwise been lost in history.

African Ancestors Memorial Garden | Photo by Devon Sayers

About 13 feet below the museum, visitors will be able to see the historic wharf, which is now home to the African Ancestors Memorial Garden. The area is accented by Canary Island palms and art installations like the Tide Tribute, a visceral presentation of the transatlantic slave trade’s inhumane conditions, and the men, women and children sentenced to a life of bondage in the United States.

If you’re traveling to see this archival behemoth next week, you’ll want to know where to stay, what to eat, and what other things you should do in Charleston. So when you’re not at the IAAM, here’s some fun things to do around the area.

Drive time:

About 4 hours and 45 minutes from Atlanta, Georgia

More things to do in Charleston

One museum just isn’t enough for your trip to Charleston—you have to hit up the South Carolina Museum as well. Since your days will be filled exploring the museum halls, head to Music Farm or The Commodore for unforgettable live performances when the sun sets on this historic coastal area. If you’re still looking for a dose of history after dark, Nightly Spirits is an evening walking tour through historic downtown Charleston.

Where to stay in Charleston

Less than a mile from the International African American Museum, there are several locations for you to lay your head once the day’s activities are done. Hotel Emeline, The Spectator Hotel, and Market Pavilion are all stylish properties with varying Southern-style design details.

Restaurants in Charleston to fuel up for the drive

Charleston is known for its second-to-none cuisine, so you’d be hard pressed not to hit up some of their amazing restaurants. Head to the iconic Leon’s Oyster Shop for their namesake raw bar items or have a heartier meal of the famous whole hog pork sandwich and a slate of sides at the original location of Rodney Scott’s BBQ. If it’s soul food you’re after, look no further than Bertha’s Kitchen, an institution that's been slinging soul food since 1981. In the morning, stop by Early Bird Diner or Millers All Day for greasy spoon classics before hitting the road.

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Okla Jones is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes about food, fine arts, and entertainment. His work also appears in ESSENCE, Creative Loafing Atlanta, and Consequence of Sound. Follow him on Instagram at @coolhandoak.