Charleston’s African American Museum dealt setback as state funding is dropped

Former mayor predicts minimum eight-month delay

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The final design for the International African American Museum - MOODY NOLAN/PEI COBB FREED & PARTNERS
  • Moody Nolan/Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
  • The final design for the International African American Museum
While South Carolina legislators seem to have reached an agreement on the state budget following lengthy negotiations, funding for one local project failed to make the cut.

State funding for Charleston’s International African American Museum, the $75 million project planned for Gadsden’s Wharf, hit the chopping block as a part of the most recent compromise by a group of six members from both the state House of Representatives and Senate. Although, Senators had previously planned to allocate $5 million for the museum in the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year, former Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. says lawmakers want to see private fundraising efforts for the project completed before the state contributes any additional money.

The plan for funding the International African American Museum involves a mix of state, county, and local funding, with private donors expected to pick up the rest of the cost. Of the estimated $75 million needed for the project, the city of Charleston and Charleston County have committed $25 million. With an additional $14 million in state money already pledged to the museum in previous years, the expected $5 million contribution from the state would have put the museum on track to break ground as early as the beginning of 2018. Now, although Riley remains confident that the necessary funds will eventually come, he expects at least an eight-month delay in the start of construction following the decision by state legislators.

“This decision slows things down a bit, but it is not critical,” says Riley, who has made the museum his primary focus since leaving office. “As I’ve said before, this is not a sprint. It’s a long-distance run.”

In March, just as the designs for the International African American Museum gained final approval from Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review, museum president Michael Moore estimated that around $19 million in private funding was still needed. Judging by the current pace of fundraising efforts, Riley predicts that the funding goal will be reached by the end of 2017. After that milestone, the former mayor says those working to build the museum can apply once again for state funding as the next annual budget is determined.

While the International African American Museum would tell the stories of the estimated 100,000 enslaved Africans who arrived in Charleston Harbor during the peak of the slave trade, Riley has also touted the economic impact that the museum could have on the Charleston area and South Carolina as a whole. A 2016 study by the University of South Carolina’s SmartState Center of Economic Excellence in Tourism estimates that just a 5 percent increase in African-American visitors would result in an extra $118 million for the state. Altogether, African-American tourists have an economic impact of almost $2.4 billion in South Carolina.

While the International African American Museum was dealt a setback with this year’s budget, not all museums across the state were so unfortunate. Proposed versions of the state budget highlight more than $1.32 million in total funding for the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum Commission, almost $70,000 more than the previous year’s general funds allocation. This total includes almost $90,000 for the annual salary of the museum commission’s executive director and nearly $780,000 in other operating expenses.

Expecting at least an eight-month delay in the opening of the International African American Museum, Riley remains resolute in the project’s importance on both a local, statewide, and national level. Acknowledging what he called a “very difficult budget for the state this year,” the former mayor is certain that legislators understand the role that the museum would play in acknowledging both the complete history of Charleston and the United States.

“I’m sure the importance of the museum is recognized and what it would mean to this state and this nation,” says Riley. “The important thing now is getting it built.”


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