For many Black Americans, Charleston was our ancestors’ Ellis Island

Years ago, my mother would tell me stories about picking cotton as a child.

Barely a tween the first time I heard this, I was incredulous. “Were you a slave?” I asked, fairly certain that in school I had been taught, or it had been strongly implied, that only enslaved people and sharecroppers had picked cotton.

My mother was born in 1940 — 75 years after the Civil War ended. But history is always a little closer to the present than we may think. She would talk about the days when she piled into a truck full of children with lunch pails in hand, headed for a day working in the field.

This memory popped into my head while visiting the new International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina, with my 12-year-old daughter. We were walking through one of the museum’s nine galleries, “American Journeys,” which spans more than 600 years of African American history.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Charleston was our first stop in a weeklong road trip to museums in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama to explore the history of Black people in the South. My mission was to provide my daughter with experiences similar to those that my parents had given me. They wanted to help me understand aspects of history and culture that I might not be learning in school.

I came of age in the 1970s and ‘80s, the post-civil rights generation, and my parents were enthusiastic in their exploration of an open road that no longer required Black motorists to travel with a Green Book to ensure their safety.

On those trips, I got an up-close look at the wheels of government while visiting the White House, learned about Chinese immigration and the gold rush when we traveled to San Francisco, and soaked in information on the forced removal of indigenous peoples on a trip to Dubuque, Iowa.

When we ventured to points South, however, to my parents’ home states of Mississippi and Louisiana, we didn’t visit as tourists. Most of what I learned on those trips came in the form of family stories. History was there, it just wasn’t enshrined in museums.

“The rise of African American museums in particular is rather recent as far as museums go. There has often been a reason why these stories weren’t unearthed. Sometimes they were too painful. Sometimes they were too powerful,” said Tonya Matthews, the CEO of IAAM, a $100 million venture that took more than 20 years to build because of political, financial and environmental delays.

One of the greatest challenges that IAAM faced was resurfacing those stories that give deep understanding of the Black experience in America with empathy and authenticity, Matthews said.

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

The telling of those stories can help all Americans see how events of the past shaped our country today. Personally, one of the reasons I wanted to visit these museums was to make sense of an ever-changing world where so much of our history seems to be repeating itself.

For many of us, our journey in this country started in South Carolina. More than 40% of enslaved Africans passed through the Charleston Harbor, headed to a life of hardship, but also triumphs in the face of adversity time and time again.

The IAAM isn’t Charleston’s first repository of Black history. The Old Slave Mart Museum, located at the site where enslaved people were once sold, was established in 1938 by a white preservationist who collected Black cultural artifacts.

The city purchased the property (not the collection) in 1988 and reopened the space in 2007 as a museum documenting Charleston’s role in the domestic slave trade.

The Old Slave Mart was our first stop in Charleston. It was Juneteenth, and the tiny museum was filled with tourists.

We wound our way through the exhibits, learning about Thomas Ryan, the city alderman and slave profiteer who opened the Slave Mart in July 1856 after Charleston banned the sale of Black people on the streets. By 1860, only 15 people in the U.S. owned more than 500 slaves, and eight of them lived in South Carolina.

There was a lot of reading at the Old Slave Mart Museum, and I could tell my daughter, Layla, was fading until we met Christine King Mitchell. A docent since 2013, Mitchell showed us how to distill demographic information about enslaved people from ship manifests and how to understand the financial impact of human trafficking by examining official documents, such as bank loans and insurance papers.

From the moment we arrived in Charleston, we had compared it to Savannah’s coastal vibe with its palm trees and historic buildings that transport you back in time. But, for Black people, Ellis Island may be a better comparison to Charleston.

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

It is estimated that 90% of Black Americans have an ancestor with connections to South Carolina. I had recently learned that my great, great maternal grandmother was born in South Carolina in 1834 or 1843, depending on the source.

A few years ago, on a trip to New York City, we visited Ellis Island, and Layla looked at the passenger database searching for our family name. I didn’t tell her how unlikely it was that she would find anything meaningful.

When we visited IAAM and stood at Gadsden’s Wharf, where African people had disembarked hundreds of years earlier, I felt as if I had a more tangible connection to some of my ancestors.

The museum has a genealogy center, and, more than any exhibit, this is where Layla was most engaged. People have a profound yearning to understand where they came from. As soon as we entered, she began tapping on the kiosks and building our family tree on my phone using the resources she found. For her, this seemed to be an important entry point to building a deeper interest in American history.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

“Museums like ours give our nation as a whole an opportunity to hear these stories from this perspective of realness and authenticity, but it also allows the storytellers, the African American community in our case, to feel seen and heard and have these stories validated,” Matthews said.

We explored the exhibits, taking in the view from louvered windows that guide the eye toward the Atlantic Ocean, where slave ships had arrived. In “African Routes,” we discovered frameworks of African societies and how they evolved in the Western world. We learned how Charleston’s rice plantations failed before Africans from rice growing cultures used their knowledge to enrich the crops and fill planters’ pockets. We also heard the ways in which Black people resisted slavery, holding on to their dignity and trying to shape their own destinies.

“To paint the African American journey as trauma only removes the agency. It suggests the only ways in which they were existing was in response to someone else,” said Malika Pryor, IAAM’s chief learning and engagement officer. “The reality is, they were making and remaking themselves not just in response to their conditions, not just despite their conditions, but simply as a result of what it means to be a human being. If folks had only been navigating the experience and not creating, I’m not sure we would have survived.”

We left Charleston energized, excited about what we would discover next. As we drove along Savannah Highway heading toward our next stop in Macon, I wondered out loud if the swampy fields to either side were the spaces where my ancestors from South Carolina might have lived and worked or possibly ran and hid.

The answer came minutes later when, in Beaufort County, we saw a sign marking the Harriet Tubman Memorial Bridge. We were passing the site of the Combahee Ferry Raid where in June 1863, Tubman and Black soldiers of South Carolina emancipated more than 700 people from slavery.

History, once again, felt close to the present.

In June, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Nedra Rhone and her 12-year-old daughter took a five-day road trip to Black history museums in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. With two new institutions opening in the region this summer, Rhone saw an opportunity to examine the ways that history is being preserved in the South. She considers the museums more important than ever now, as lawmakers around the nation are limiting how race is discussed in schools. Check out her dispatches from each stop ( In this column and in two others —coming Saturday and Sunday — Rhone reflects more deeply on what she and her daughter learned on their journey.

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