African American Family History

Unearthing Family Histories: International African American Museum Honors Untold Stories

The recently inaugurated International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, is pioneering a unique approach to preserving untold stories. This historic institution, situated at the site where an estimated 40 percent of enslaved Africans entered the United States, stands as a testament to the rich and complex tapestry of African-American history.

Center for Family History

The museum’s initiative involves genealogy, providing visitors a platform to pose personal family tree questions. The recording booth, where Californian Dawn Gravely shares her family’s journey from Nigeria through Jamaica, is just one example of the countless stories waiting to be uncovered.

At the heart of this endeavor is the Center for Family History, boasting one of the world’s most extensive genealogical record collections. With approximately 400 million searchable records, including those predating the 1870 census—the first to include African Americans by name after the Civil War—the museum addresses a historical challenge for many African Americans in tracing their family history.

The legacy of slavery, which treated countless individuals as property, adds complexity to this pursuit. The museum seeks to break down mythical and real barriers, focusing on the period before 1870. Malika Pryor-Martin, the museum’s Chief Learning and Engagement Officer, emphasizes the importance of digitizing and making historical records accessible, unraveling the stories of those considered property during the antebellum period.

Repurposing the Grounds of Gadsden’s Wharf

Situated on the grounds where Gadsden’s Wharf once stood, the museum narrates the African diaspora through galleries like African Roots, American Journeys, Carolina Gold, and Gullah Geechee. Each section provides insight into different aspects of African-American history, showcasing the resilience and contributions of a community that endured adversity.

A Space Where History Comes Alive

Beyond being a repository of historical records, the International African American Museum serves as a spiritual center and a place of justice for the community. Darius Brown, a research assistant at the museum, exemplifies the profound impact of tracing one’s lineage. His six-year journey revealed his family’s connection to the Emancipation Proclamation and led to the self-publication of a book chronicling his discoveries.

As visitors explore their roots, the museum becomes a dynamic space for discovering both the pain and joy embedded in African-American history. Malika Pryor-Martin believes that uncovering these stories reaffirms the community’s resilience, intelligence, and capacity for love.

The International African American Museum stands as a beacon, guiding individuals through the intricate paths of their heritage and fostering a deeper understanding of the diverse narratives that have shaped America.

If you found this exploration of newly uncovered African-American stories fascinating, share the article and encourage others to embark on their journey of discovering familial roots. The International African American Museum is not just a repository of records; it’s a space where history comes alive. Thank you for sharing!

Source: PBS News Hour · by Anne Azzi Davenport and Geoff Bennett · November 14, 2023

Brenda Neece, DPhil (Oxon), is a cellist, organologist, writer, and teacher specializing in the history of the cello.