There are many unique ways to tell the story of the United States’ rich, cultural African-American history. From the first African slaves to step onto American soil to the complex yet resplendent history of African-Americans today, there are still so many stories that have yet to be told.
It’s part of the reason that businessman Michael Boulware Moore, the great-great-grandson of Robert Smalls, an enslaved African-American who escaped to freedom by commandeering a Confederate supply ship, is hoping to help continue to educate the public by spearheading a project that will bring a $75 million African-American museum to Charleston, South Carolina.
“I’ve got a real deep connection to Charleston, to African-American history, to the project, and so I decided to come on and help lead the museum and help raise the money that we need to break ground and to get it built so it can make the greatest impact it can make,” Moore said.
The International African American Museum, slated to open in late 2020, will feature several exhibits that will walk visitors through West Africa in the 17th century and end with the formation of new African-American communities in the 21st century, according to the website. Inside, exhibits will include digital wall backdrops, large-scale film, imagery and life-sized interactive contemporary figures for visitors to engage.
The museum will also focus on the full scope of African-American history, with an emphasis on South Carolina’s role in colonial American history.
Between 1783 and 1808, approximately 100,000 slaves arriving from across West Africa were transported through Gadsden’s Wharf and other South Carolina ports and sold to the 13 colonies, according to an article in The New York Times. Nearly half of enslaved Africans brought to America came through Charleston, and nearly 80 percent of African-Americans can potentially trace an ancestor who arrived in the city.
“Building the museum in Charleston is that one spot where we can all pilgrimage to, to pay homage to our ancestors, pay respects to the sacrifices that they made and contemplate our own lives based on that context,” Moore said. “It was a place where so much economic vibrancy and growth and innovation came from.”
Moore became the chief executive officer of the International African American Museum in February 2016 after being invited to join the museum’s board by former Charleston mayor Joseph Riley. At the time, the board was looking for executive leadership to help move the project along. Having spent more than two decades as an advertising executive leading major marketing campaigns for brands such as Coca-Cola and Kraft, Moore was a perfect fit for the job.
“On one hand, I’ve been this marketer consulting, working and running companies,” Moore said. “On the other, there’s a side of me that’s been focused on social justice, serving others and African-American history. This is the first opportunity in my life where I’ve been able to leverage all of me in service to a project. It’s a very special opportunity. It’s one that I take really, really seriously because of the impact it potentially can have, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about the team we have around us and what we’re doing.”
There are several features Moore and developers plan to incorporate to enhance the museum experience, including a free smartphone app and beacons in each exhibit that will allow visitors to receive the exhibit’s content through video, text and audio right to their phones.
Moore and his team are also negotiating with officials in Sierra Leone to bring artifacts from the West African nation’s old slave fort, Bunce Island, to the museum.
“We’ve discussed bringing a couple of stones that were at the end of a jetty at Bunce Island,” Moore said. “They used to aggregate the captives there, march them down this stone jetty and onto slave ships. The last two stones, we’re talking about retrieving those, bringing them here and using them as a centerpiece of a memorial for the African ancestors.”
One of the most important aspects of the museum will be its Center for Family History, which, according to Moore, is set to become the leading resource center for African-American genealogy in the country. Partnering with DNA firms, genealogy readings will be able to tell visitors specifically where their African ancestry originated on the continent.
“Someone will walk in like most African-Americans and not know a whole lot about their long-term family history,” Moore said. “Most African-Americans can go back maybe to a great-grandparent. They’ll be able to walk out with a full account of their family history back to the first African who came here. It’s really going to be a transformative experience.”
Although several African-American museums exist in the United States, Moore hopes visitors will come to Charleston to pay homage to those who came before them and leave the invaluable experience with a deeper sense of their identity.
“Because this museum is on a spot where almost all African-Americans have a relative, there will be a real connection to the space and to the beginning of our American experience,” Moore said. “What we hope to try to create in this museum is a place where all African-Americans, wherever you are in the country or hemisphere, will want to bring your family here. It’s a place where your ancestors came and a place we can finally go to pay homage to their experiences and sacrifices, and reconnect with them.”