News Release

With Church Support, the International African American Museum Opens in Charleston

The museum is a sacred site and includes a Center for Family History supported by FamilySearch

The grand opening ceremony for the International African American Museum (IAAM) was held on Saturday, June 24, 2023. The museum is built on a portion of the former Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina — an important spot in American history.

“As I look out into Gadsden’s Wharf, into the harbor where 100,000 Africans first touched the soil of the United States of America — right here where you are seated — it’s a lot,” actress and Howard University Fine Arts Dean Phylicia Rashad said to kick off the grand opening. “Yes, this location represents one of the most prolific slaving warehouses and operations in history. But now, today, we reclaim this land and honor the countless lives lost and enslaved with a monument to our history, our families, our heritage, our contributions, and, yes, our future.”

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“Every single aspect of this museum is unrelenting,” said former Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, who helped start and complete the IAAM. “The results are splendid: Henry Cobb’s elegant Building. Walter Hood’s extraordinary landscape design. Robust exhibits. The Center for Family History. And committed staff and volunteers, nationwide partnerships and generous donors. This museum that we open today is a gift to our country. And it is a gift to each of us and to future generations. This powerful museum will teach us and inspire us to build a better future together.”

At a news conference on Friday, June 23, IAAM President and CEO Tonya Matthews said the history of the land on which the museum sits makes it hallowed ground.

“[This was] our nation's most prolific transatlantic slave trading port, where nearly 50% of all enslaved human beings who came to what is now the United States would have entered right through this this very space,” Matthews said. “It is why we refer to it as hallowed ground, a sacred site. Some folks even reference ground zero.”

The museum, which opens to the public on June 27, contains a Center for Family History, supported by FamilySearch International of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2019, the Church of Jesus Christ donated $2 million to help build the center — an important resource for the study and advancement of African American genealogy, with connections to Africa and the African diaspora.

“One of the things I’ve really appreciated about the relationship with the Church is that the Center for Family History has become the not-so-hidden gem of the museum,” Matthews said. “We get as many questions about the center itself as we do about all the other galleries and objects and artifacts. Connected with that expertise, that really valuing of individual stories, we tell a big picture, a story of nations, of communities. But to have partners [like the Church] that also value the stories of individuals and are earnestly connected to helping people find their own stories — it’s going to be an invaluable steadying space for us as we ride the waves of our growth.”

Thom Reed, a program manager for FamilySearch African heritage initiatives, has facilitated the Church’s involvement with the IAAM from the beginning. He said this museum will be a boon for multitudes.

Thom Reed, a program manager for FamilySearch African heritage initiatives, stands near a kiosk in the Center for Family History in the new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, on Friday, June 23, 2023. Reed has facilitated the Church’s involvement with the IAAM from the beginning.2023 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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“Many people will be healed and will be made whole because of what they’re able to learn about themselves,” Reed said. “I rejoice in the group with Dr. Tonya Matthews and her staff and everyone that’s put this together to make this a reality. This is a story that needs to be told. It is an International African American Museum, which maybe sounds kind of unique to say. But truly our people went everywhere in the world. There is a diaspora for people of African descent that is outside of even the United States. And this is a launching point for many individuals and many families.”

Shelley Viola Murphy, who oversees the Center for Family History, said the relationship with FamilySearch is indispensable because they provide many millions of records online for free.

“The availability of the access is what’s really key in understanding what’s there [in the Center for Family History] and for people to learn how to put it together,” Murphy said. “And it’s not just here in South Carolina. We will be able to help guide people from this center to go check [the FamilySearch website] … because maybe oral history said you have people that came from Barbados. Well, was it during slave time or was it a different time? So, there are so many opportunities that will get people motivated, hopefully, to start research in their own family. It’s a journey. This is a good stopping place for people to stop in and get that kicked off and to be able to learn.”

The Center for Family History has tutorials on the basics of genealogy. It also contains resources for a deeper dive into documenting the Atlantic slave trade in Charleston, as well as United States military records for African Americans and online obituaries from the Beaufort County Library.

“As far as FamilySearch, I think the education piece [they offer] is so critical because they get you from 101 to the slave era,” Murphy said.

In August, museum patrons can access one-on-one consultations with family history specialists.

When Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles presented the $2 million check in 2019 to then-IAAM CEO Michael Moore, the Apostle called the effort “a perfect partnership.” On Friday in Charleston, FamilySearch CEO Stephen Rockwood echoed those words when he said the Church’s support of the IAAM fits perfectly with FamilySearch’s goal to help people learn the truth about their roots.

“We believe [this museum] is a sacred place,” Rockwood said. “We love it when any experience can be powered by FamilySearch, even if you don’t see our name anywhere. If we can power those sort of experiences just because of the access that we’re able to provide, I think that’s a worthy job to be doing.”

The Church’s work with the IAAM, Rockwood said, is a manifestation of living out Jesus’s two great commandments to love God and love one’s neighbor.

“It’s so wonderful to then find those areas where we can agree and collaborate with each other,” Rockwood said. “And family history, or people wanting to know who they are, where they come from, is one of those areas where like-minded people that are inspired can get together.”

Visit iaamuseum.org to learn more.

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