The new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Greg Noire. Courtesy of IAAM.

Newly built International African American Museum traces ancestry, encourages Black people to share the tales of their family

5 mins read

To be Black in America is a difficult story to tell. Albeit, the International African American Museum says it is an important story that must be told.

From the outset, Africans in slavery had their identities removed and were transported as cargo. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database reports that between 1525 and 1866, European colonizers moved an estimated 12.5 million Africans across the Atlantic. In the U.S., those crossings can be located to specific ports that served as main points of entry for stolen people forced into a brutal chattel system.

The International African American Museum (IAAM) is located in Charleston, a port city that saw a multitude of ships and boats dock there for centuries during slavery. In their berths, many of these vessels held captured humans who were survivors of the Middle Passage. “About 80 percent of African-Americans can trace a relative back to Charleston,” explained IAAM’s founding president, Michael B. Moore.

Building the institute in Charleston was both intentional and sacred. On one hand, it is a location rich in archival materials and archaeological evidence. On the other, the bones of millions lie underneath the city, making it a significant graveyard in American history. 

“Boone Hall Plantation once had 27 slave houses,” tweeted Morehouse alumni and historian Branden Hunter about a massive Charleston plantation recorded in a document listing slave ships moored at the city’s docks from 1711 to 1858. Hunter, who also goes by the moniker, Detroit Griot, pointed out that “Nine [of the slave homes] still stand today. Inside was [the] slave ship’s name; where they captured native Africans; how many boarded the boat to South Carolina; and how many survived the long voyage.” 

He added, “This is incredible information.” Hunter’s excitement indicates details that often have been lost in archives, or almost erased, can now be accessed by the public. 

The ability to retrieve coveted historical documents centers the mission of IAAM. Moreover, a main function of the museum is to serve as a repository for documentation about enslaved persons in the U.S. Most notably, descendants of slaves and Blacks who lived during this time, increase their chances to find bits of their lineage in searches that have, before, been more challenging to someone who does not come from a research background, nor had an opportunity to use this type of rich data. While this provides a critical resource, finding your ancestry can still be daunting. 

When it comes to the genealogy of people of African descent, slavery undoubtedly presents quite a few challenges in trying to piece together family history. Because slavery made the U.S. a global power, it was a massive industry. Those involved in its Black market profited as much as merchants gained in the “legitimate” one. However, the people marked as chattel were commodities often left invisible as humans. Yet, the commitment of IAAM is to speak the “unvarnished truth” about this time in history, while recapturing those lives hidden in the folds of a complicated and dark past.

Stumbling blocks

One hundred thousand enslaved Africans are estimated to have been brought to the United States at the waterfront on Gadsen’s Wharf. Serving as the largest slave port in the U.S. between the late 1700s to 1807, today, the museum is slated to move onto the pier, a 2.3-acre development on the eastern side of the Charleston peninsula.

When a cultural research management team began exploring the remains at the coastal site in 2014, they discovered another layer of history. Results from Brockington and Associates’ archaeological dig uncovered wooden remnants of the original 18th-century level quayside area line, its timbers, and even the brick floor of a stone structure used to hold African captives before they were sold.

While all of this was possible due to genealogy advancements, in reality, it is still difficult for African Americans to connect the dots of their past. They face challenges that range from figuring out whether their ancestors were enslaved or free, narrowing their search, or retrieving records from the slave masters’ progeny.

“A lot of [records] are with the families [of the slave holders] and a lot of them are not helping or sharing information,” coordinator of Genealogy Education of the International African American Museum, Dr. Shelley Murphy told Ark Republic. She is also a descendant researcher at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“They’re not all online, they’re not all [in] the historical societies, they’re not all in the libraries or lineage institutions,” she continued.

What’s more, the records that are available have been lost in translation over the years. This makes white families an important resource in mapping enslaved Blacks.

“We’re at their mercy because they were the ones holding the pen and writing the information down,” Dr. Murphy explained. 

Oftentimes, names were misspelled in the census by the enumerator or the U.S. Marshall. “Spelling doesn’t even count when you’re doing genealogical research because [with] name changes, the spelling [could] go all kinds of ways,” pointed out Dr. Murphy.

Even non-English, African, Native or non-Christian names were Anglicized like a swath of Blacks in the Creole corridor which spans from southeast Texas to southern Alabama. Other populations whose identities were reconfigured at the whim of census workers includes those with Spanish names in Florida.

The white side of the search for Black folks

Finally, when trying to figure out if your distant relative was enslaved or free, it is also important to bear in mind that slavery categorized African Americans as property. 

“They were not even considered [to be] humans and so you have to look at the property records. Where are the slaveholders’ property records?” inquired the researcher.

Continuing the complex trek to finding ancestors, enslaved people’s identities and locations were further hidden because they could be rented out, mortgaged, and even insured. Additionally, they were given as gifts, such as wedding dowries or inheritance presents, or used as collateral for loans. Sadly, there are various avenues that must be explored—in relation to the white slave holder’s family. 

“That’s why it’s so important to exhaust that local history and the local records,” emphasized the museum’s coordinator. 

The search should also include ancestors who were known as quasi-free Negroes. In 1830, records show there were 6,000 free persons of color in Charleston. According to a C.W. Birnie, an early twentieth-century historian, for a Black person to be free was not a seal granting movement absent of restriction. This population, though many educated and made a profitable living as skilled craftspersons, builders, teachers and entrepreneurs, were highly restricted and surveilled in the 1700s and early 19th Century. After 1834, a law banned Free persons and slaves from teaching enslaved people how to read. Ultimately, this set off a wave of hostilities which caused an out-migration before the Civil War.

Incorporating the details of a nuanced South Carolina history amplifies every researcher to be as creative as they are determined. Alternatively, Dr. Murphy warns that conducting a search that is too broad, risks wasting time. The desire to learn everything there is to know about the Williams family, for instance, is an unreasonable goal. A more effective approach: being able to clarify specifically what you’re looking for in genealogical searches.

Sankofa: looking at your past to know your future

Knowing your history most certainly impacts who you become. Currently, Moore, the museum’s founder, announced his run for the same Lowcountry congressional seat his great-great-grandfather, Robert Smalls, once held. 

Smalls was a Civil War hero who served as U.S. Representative from 1874 to 1886. At the height of the war, he acted as a boat captain to commandeer a ship while enslaved. His actions freed 17 members of his family. Later Rep. Smalls persuaded former President Abraham Lincoln to permit freed slaves to enlist in the Union Army.

During the Reconstruction, Smalls was one of the first Black men in the U.S. Congress before South Carolina rolled back its voting laws and dismantled progressive legislature for newly freed peoples. Now, Moore campaigns to defeat Rep. Nancy Mace (SC-R).

Journalist established in 2001, inspired by transformative leads.

Ultimately, Moore’s story embodies an essential node in the American narrative—if you persevere to uncover the past, the painful voyage leads to stories that shape the country’s future.

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