Above: Bernard Powers at the International African American Museum. (Photo by Mike Ledford)
Having worked with Charleston’s new International African American Museum (IAAM) since its inception, Bernard Powers, director of the College of Charleston’s Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston and professor emeritus of history, has a unique perspective on the museum’s journey as it prepares to open on June 24, 2023. His roles have included acting as interim president of the IAAM, chairing the museum’s programming committee and now serving as a member of the IAAM Board of Directors.
As chairman, Powers worked with experts and museum consultants, Applebaum Associates Inc., to create the interior plan for the museum’s galleries. It’s been a considerable effort that Powers insists has been a collaborative project with contributions from a wide range of experts from a variety of fields, including faculty members from the College.
“There have been a number of CofC faculty who helped plan the design for one or more of the galleries based on their expertise and knowledge. Some of the work included reading through and critiquing narrative scripts and artifacts for the galleries. Some helped develop ideas that anchored one or more of the galleries based on their expertise,” says Powers. “Some, like John Rashford, professor emeritus of anthropology, were there at the very beginning and made crucial contributions that shaped our vision and continues to shape the future direction of the museum.”
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Other faculty include Hollis France, associate professor and chair of the College’s Department of Political Science, who is featured in an exhibition in the western part of the museum called the “American Journey,” where a series of short videos featuring life-size images of narrators, including France, connect the past to the present.
“This area conveys a chronological treatment of African American, American and South Carolina histories to show intersections between them,” says Powers. “Those shown on the videos are speaking to some contemporary issue or question sometimes with historical roots.”
IAAM exhibits focus on connecting history with present-day issues and people. (Photo by Greg Noire)
In fact, the experience was a full-circle one for France who, through her work with the IAAM, has come to better appreciate the her own personal journey and the scale and scope of the African diaspora.
“There’s a water feature outside the IAAM that identifies the ports where enslaved Africans were dropped off and when I was there visiting, I saw my birthplace Guyana, South America, on the map,” says France. “That’s when I realized this is why I’m here, this is why I was asked to participate. This is a much bigger story of people who are connected globally.”
The museum, she says, offers a deeper dive into the history of the enslavement of Africans and African Americans in the United States and offers a new way forward.
“We were taken from these beautiful empires and brought to the new world and experienced so much tragedy, sorrow and disappointment, and out of this bleakness has come so much innovation and creativity,” says France. “The museum shows the journey from the past to present and the future. It’s a diasporic African story.”
Tamara Butler, executive director of the College’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture and associate dean of strategic planning and community engagement of College of Charleston Libraries, who also serves as a member of the IAAM Board of Directors, agrees that the depth of information showcased in the museum’s exhibits will undoubtedly help build bridges.
Exhibits trace the history and journey of the African diaspora from African nations to North America and, ultimately, South Carolina. (Photo by Greg Noire)
“The IAAM’s presence is a call to the City of Charleston and the College of Charleston to understand our (African Americans) contributions to the history and culture of the state and the global diaspora,” says Butler. “The museum can welcome people to Charleston to connect with a variety of longstanding organizations and cultural institutions like the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture and McLeod Plantation to gain a deeper understanding of our history as diasporic peoples.”
And with the museum poised to celebrate its grand opening on Saturday, June 24, 2023, Powers is looking forward to seeing the IAAM spark new areas of interest in the next generations.
“This is not a just history museum: it is an interdisciplinary museum of history, art, geography, literature, anthropology – all of these are a part of telling the story,” he says. “We want visitors to understand and consume the story by multiple means to supplement the historic record.”
A College Effort
Other College of Charleston faculty and staff who contributed their expertise to the International African American Museum include:
Ghazi Abuhakema, director of Asian studies and Arabic programs
Chris Boucher, associate professor, Department of History
Daron Lee Calhoun, II Race and Social Justice Initiative coordinator, Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture
Mari Crabtree, associate professor of African American studies
Mary Jo Fairchild, library research services coordinator, Special Collections, Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library
R. Grant Gilmore, III, associate professor and Addlestone Chair in Historic Preservation
Harlan Greene, archivist, Special Collections, Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library
Aaisha Haykal, manager of archival services, Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture
Kameelah Martin, dean of the Graduate School and professor of African American studies
Georgette Mayo, processing archivist, Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture
Dale Rosengarten, founding director of the Jewish Heritage Collection at Addlestone Library
Ted Rosengarten, Zucker/Goldberg chair of Holocaust studies
Hayden Smith, visiting assistant professor, Department of History
Erica Veal, Research Archivist & Interpretation Coordinator, Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture