Right here. The spot used to be Gadsden’s Wharf. Historians estimate nearly half of all African slaves brought to America arrived in Charleston, most of them at Gadsden’s Wharf. At 840-feet-long, it was, two centuries ago, the largest wharf in America. Thousands of Africans waited in the wharf’s warehouses to be auctioned off.
In what has become a parking lot, just inland, 700 of them froze to death.
For millions of African-Americans today, the site is “ground zero,” as the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has put it, for “blackness, black culture, the African experience, the African-American experience, slavery — however you want to slice it.”
Every era erects, removes, amends — or ignores — monuments. Monuments and historical museums are always mirrors, advertisements, time bombs. Hardly a street or building in Germany today lacks some sign or plaque, redressing the past. It was the proposed removal of a Jim Crow-era statue of Robert E. Lee that became the excuse for the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., last year, where a white nationalist is to go on trial late this year in the murder of a protester at the event.
Unlike Virginia, South Carolina hasn’t taken down Confederate monuments. Much has changed here but much has not. The state’s most recent proposal for social studies standards in public schools doesn’t mention the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks.
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston where a young white man massacred nine black congregants in 2015 is virtually in the shadow of what’s still the city’s tallest monument (another Jim Crow relic) of the antebellum vice president and proud white supremacist John C. Calhoun.
It has been nearly two decades since Joseph P. Riley Jr., Charleston’s mayor at the time, floated the idea of a museum of African-American culture and history, on a different site, nearby. A dozen years passed, then more.
Mr. Riley retired in 2016, after 40 years in office, having been elected during the 1970s as a racial bridge builder. White racists called him “L’il Black Joe” when he appointed a black police chief in 1975. Charleston prospered over the intervening decades.
But gentrification had its effects. Two-thirds black in the early 1980s, the population has become 70 percent white. I suggested to Mr. Riley the other day that Charleston can come across to a visitor as Disneyland for the Confederacy, still enthralled by its era of slavery, with a monument on seemingly every downtown corner commemorating some Confederate soldier, plantation aristocrat or antebellum judge who opposed Lincoln.
“It’s a process,” he replied. “We worked hard while I was mayor to avoid alienation, to make this a city where everyone feels welcome. When I was in school, they didn’t teach us about slavery. I really only learned the truth about how slaves were treated when I had already been in office for many years. That’s when I began to think seriously about the museum.”
But without enough money or much public enthusiasm, the plan sputtered. Then excavations turned up traces of Gadsden’s Wharf in the muck beneath the grassy lot. Through the exhibition designer Ralph Appelbaum, Mr. Riley reached out to Mr. Cobb.
Pretty much the architect’s first question: Why not build on the location of the wharf?
By that point, the city had sold the property to a local restaurateur, unaware of its history. Mr. Riley spent a tidy sum buying the land back.
“Sometimes you quick-cook something, it’s a mistake,” rationalized the former mayor, who has taken to calling the museum his “most important work,” especially after the church murders. “It turned out to be good that we had a lengthy germination period.”
Now 91, the soft-spoken Mr. Cobb is known for designing the John Hancock Tower in Boston, 7 Bryant Park in New York, and a variety of big, sleek buildings in between, the best of which are geometrically eloquent and deceptively simple. Working here with the structural engineer Guy Nordenson, he describes this project as an “unrhetorical work of architecture.”
But that’s not quite true. On the edge of the cobblestoned tourist area, with its ornate Gothic Revival-style churches and Queen Anne houses, the museum’s plain-spoken modernism comes across as almost whisperingly defiant, a turning of the page, promising a deliverance from history, modernism’s originating goal.
Moody Nolan are the architects of record. Slender brick cladding underscores the pavilion’s long horizontal spans and extended cantilevers on either end. Pointed columns are meant to make the structure’s mass appear to float. Perching the museum on piers will take account of rising waters. But it’s also hard not to see an allusion to a wharf.
Inside, galleries will document the many diverse cultures Africans brought to America, and a family center will let visitors trace their roots to Gadsden’s Wharf.
For his part, Mr. Hood has reimagined a constrained and narrow property, about a football-field long. The late, great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer was an inspiration. Mr. Hood creates a shaded public plaza, in the breezy space underneath the raised structure, where people may congregate around the building’s double-sided staircase, so the museum can become a gathering spot, not just a pilgrimage site.
The memorial garden and tidal pool, at the same time, insure that it’s recognized as hallowed ground, a place for contemplation.
The budget for building the museum is $75 million. The goal is for bulldozers to start digging later this year and for construction to finish in 2020. But there’s a hitch. No shovel will be lifted until all the money is raised. Charleston has committed its $25 million share, along with the land, and private donations are approaching the $25 million goal.
But the South Carolina legislature, after an understanding that it would contribute $25 million over five years, allocated $14 million, and now won’t promise the remaining $11 million. The clock is ticking. The current legislature remains in session only until the end of May.
State Representative Brian White, a Republican who heads South Carolina’s House Ways and Means Committee, is one of those holding the money back. The museum “is not a state project and we have a lot of state needs right now that far outweigh a municipality’s request,” he recently told the Greenville News, citing competing priorities like education.
Bobby Hitt, South Carolina’s commerce secretary, by contrast, has pointed out that the museum will help attract businesses to the state. It adds a work of architectural dignity. And as for educational value, plainly it fills a gap.
“This ain’t a black project,” as Bakari Sellers, a former Democrat in the state legislature, put it to the Greenville News. “This ain’t a Charleston project. This is an American project.”
Or as James Baldwin said, “If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”
One recent morning I toured the site with Mr. Hood and Michael Boulware Moore, the museum’s president, then we looked out over the harbor. Mr. Moore said his ancestors were among the slaves who arrived in shackles at Gadsden’s Wharf.
His great-great grandfather was Robert Smalls, who commandeered a Confederate ship, turning it over to Union forces and winning freedom for himself, his family and his crew. Smalls became a crusading state legislator and United States congressman during Reconstruction. He brought free public education to South Carolina.
A plaque honoring Smalls was installed on a squat little pillar downtown not long ago. Mr. Moore showed me a picture of it.
Think, the Stonehenge set from “Spinal Tap.” The memorial looks tiny, and is periodically obscured by bushes.
Not far away, a big statue on a huge round pedestal, at the tip of the battery facing Fort Sumter, honors the Confederate Defenders of Charleston.
Symbols matter. The past is present. The museum would clearly be good for more than just business.
Correction: March 29, 2018
An earlier version of this article imprecisely referred to the status of a statue of Robert E. Lee. There has been a proposal to remove it; it has not yet been taken down.
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