When Joseph P. Riley Jr. was elected mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, in December 1975, he could have hardly imagined that residents would go on to re-elect him an astounding nine times, allowing him to serve an unprecedented 40 years and leaving an indelible mark on both his hometown and cities across America. Among his many accomplishments, he served as president of the United States Conference of Mayors and was the founder of the program I now have the honor of leading, the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. Often referred to as the “Dean of America’s Mayors,” Riley has hardly gone quietly into retirement since he left public office in 2016. Instead, he’s been working diligently on the project he considers to be his life’s most important work: Charleston’s International African American Museum (IAAM), which broke ground in October 2019 and is expected to open in March 2022. We recently spoke about the museum and the importance of telling history in the places where it occurred.
TS : Trinity Simons
JPR: Joseph P. Riley
While the IAAM broke ground late last year, the project has been in the works for over 20 years. Tell us about the museum’s origins, and why it was so important to tell this story in Charleston.
The book Slaves in the Family, by Edward Ball, changed my life. It won the National Book Award in 1998. The author’s ancestors owned several plantations on the Cooper River, a few miles from Charleston, and the book traced the enslaved Africans on the plantations starting in 1692, all the way until current time, telling their stories. Growing up in the South, I was active and interested in civil rights matters, but I’d never really been confronted with the actualities of enslaved people in previous centuries in this community. Our country still doesn’t know much about this history. We know about the Mayflower, but we don’t know about the 882 slave ships that came into Charleston, many of them into Gadsden’s Wharf, or that 40 percent of all the enslaved Africans who came to North America were brought to Gadsden’s Wharf, which was then the largest wharf in the country.
As I read the book, I came to understand the seminal role that Charleston played in African Americans coming to this country, and their lives here, and I felt we had a duty to create a museum that gave that history to our country. A huge structural defect in America is this: This is a history we do not know and that we were not taught in school. After the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction, this history was swept under the rug, and a new history, a factually incorrect history, was developed. A romanticized fiction of the “Lost Cause” with a narrative that enslaved people didn’t have it very hard back then, which wasn’t true. So I felt we had a duty to tell the untold story.
The museum will reach back to Africa and the diverse cultures that were represented by people who were brought here in chains. And the stories of their lives: what it was like in Charleston, what it was like in this part of the country, being an enslaved human. And the full story of resistance, of emancipation, of the great migration, the full detailed story.
The site of the museum—not just its location in Charleston—is also very significant.
That’s right. Lonnie Bunch, who was the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and is now the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said to me, “You know, Joe, your site is one of the most sacred sites of African American history in this country.” And then he corrected himself, and said, “No, in the Western Hemisphere. What you’re doing is so important because if you don’t present history where it occurred then it’s as if the history is not important.”
But the museum’s initial site was not where this history occurred.
That’s right. The city owned property near but not on the water, with a good view of the water. We hired a team of designers, but the project floundered. Then I called Harry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed, who sadly passed earlier this year, and asked him to join the design team. Harry came down to Charleston on his own dime, and we went up on top of a parking garage with a good view, and he said, “Joe, the museum ought to be on the water.” I said, “Yes, that would be really nice, but we don’t own any land on the water.” So we walked around, to where the site is now, which we later learned was the original location of Gadsden’s Wharf. Harry convinced me, so then I had to go buy the land back, as this was actually land the city had previously owned. But we did it because it was the right thing to do. It cost a lot of money, but I had come to realize that the museum had to be built there.
We have the opportunity in our communities to shape and form institutions. And you need to work hard to get really good architects who will tell you not what you want to hear, but the right decisions you need to make. Before we had a B+ site, but now we have an A+ site. And we’re working to build something that’s internationally significant and worthy of the stories of the people who were brought here in chains. They deserve an A+ site.
One of the things I love about this project is that these stories will be told in the building, yes, but they will also be told in the landscape and in the public realm—that in many ways, the building is in service to the landscape, but that in every way, this is a project that could only be conceived in this very specific place. Tell us about working with Harry Cobb and Walter Hood and seeing these visions become reality.
From the beginning, Harry viewed the building design as being in complete service to the site. He said the building was “purposefully unrhetorical.” This also meant we had to bring in a world-class landscape architect, which we did with Walter Hood of Hood Design Studio. The building is over 350 feet long and raised 13.5 feet off the ground, hovering over the site, looking out across the harbor channel to the Atlantic Ocean, where 882 slave ships came to Charleston. But it’s a very quiet building. It’s the site that is extraordinarily powerful.
If the building is unrhetorical, the landscape is very rhetorical, using water, plants, and sculpture to tell stories. But like Charleston’s other great parks, this landscape is part of the public realm and is open to the public. It is designed for daytime use and nighttime use and feels different at different times and in different seasons. It’s one of the few places where African American history is marked through the public realm, where you can find it yourself, stumble upon it, and have a moment of reconciliation.
I think this will be one of the great buildings in our nation. Seldom can you present history where it occurred, on sacred land, on sacred space. Charleston is not a large city. Cities of our size seldom have the opportunity to create something important for the whole country. Because I was generously given a substantial length of service by the citizens of Charleston, I have had the opportunity to work on many important projects for the city—many parks, civic structures, and public realm projects—but this is the most important work of my life.
Featured image: groundbreaking for the International African American Museum, October 25, 2019, via the Charleston Chronicle.