Public Media Arts Hub

New museum honors untold stories of enslaved Africans through genealogy


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Digging deeply into family lineage has taken off in recent years, with some estimates putting the number of visits to genealogy Web sites at over 100 million a year.

The newly opened International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, aims to honor untold stories at one of America's most sacred sites. Part of that effort involves uncovering the past through genealogy.

I went to explore recently for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Dawn Gravely, California Resident: It seems that my family somehow was captured in what is now Nigeria and brought through Jamaica.

Geoff Bennett: Californian Dawn Gravely (ph) is among the visitors posing their personal family tree questions in this recording booth for museum researchers to then investigate.

Darius Brown, International African American Museum: The men also had the mitochondrial DNA. But we just don't pass it on. Only the women do.

Geoff Bennett: The same team also offers instruction about the ins and outs of accessing public records, all while inspiring visitors to glean new meaning from a distant past.

This is all part of the Center for Family History at the International African American Museum. Museum officials say they have the broadest collection of genealogical records of any institution in the U.S. and one of the most vast in the world.

Some 400 million records are searchable here, including those from before the 1870 census, the first after the Civil War to include African Americans by name.

The legacy of slavery makes it so difficult for so many African Americans to track their family history, certainly before the 20th century.

Malika Pryor-Martin, International African American Museum: Yes.

Geoff Bennett: And absolutely before the 1870 census. Where does this museum come in?

Malika Pryor-Martin: We have got some big hopes and dreams here at the IAAM.

Geoff Bennett: Malika Pryor-Martin, the museum's chief learning and engagement officer, lays out the mission.

Malika Pryor-Martin: Help folks break down what we refer to in the genealogy world as that brick wall of 1870. It's both myth and reality, because the myth, the records are there. The reality, access is tough. So, it's natural to think about the kinds of records that you would search for people.

However, in an antebellum period, the overwhelming majority of people of African descent here in the United States or what becomes the United States are not people. They're considered property. So we are really interested in investing in digitizing and working and partnering with other institutions to digitize them to make what they digitized available.

Geoff Bennett: The museum is situated where Gadsden's Wharf once stood, the site where an estimated 40 percent of all American enslaved Africans arrived in the U.S.

It's estimated that, between 1710 and 1808, upwards of 150,000 captive Africans landed at the many ports throughout the Charleston Harbor, including Gadsden's Wharf. A memorial garden under the building marks that historic site. The museum opened in June after 20 years of planning with a number of delays.

Galleries include African Roots, which traces the movement of people of African descent throughout the Atlantic world, American Journeys, which shares stories that shaped U.S. history through the international lens of the African diaspora.

Carolina Gold showcases the impact of enslaved people on South Carolina plantations who helped build the lucrative rice industry, while the Gullah Geechee exhibit looks at contemporary issues facing these descendants of West and Central Africans, who predominantly live in the Lowcountry region of the U.S. and includes this replica of a praise house.

Malika Pryor-Martin: It's a spiritual center. It's a place that's really and truly home away from home. It's a place where the community can find justice.

So it's really serving as a point of reference and grounding for the sustenance of the entire community.

Darius Brown: Ancestry does the DNA testing. FamilySearch, they just only deal with records.

Geoff Bennett: Twenty-five-year old Darius Brown, an undergraduate at the nearby College of Charleston, is also a research assistant at the museum, running some of the genealogy 101 sessions, while piecing together his own past for the last six years.

He's been able to trace several lines of his family back to the colonial period and reconstructing the population of enslaved people at several South Carolina plantations. He is also self-publishing a book about his revelations.

You have a picture of members of your family gathered on the day that the Emancipation Proclamation was read to them? This is phenomenal. Tell me more about this.

Darius Brown: Old Fort Plantation actually became Camp Saxton. And, now, Camp Saxton is where their enlistment into the first South Carolina actually took place.

And so I have about 30 relatives that fought in the Civil War, and they actually received their stars and stripes that day at the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Geoff Bennett: And you have photographic evidence of it? Where did this picture come from?

Darius Brown: During the Port Royal Experiment, different abolitionists were coming down to Beaufort. They were teaching the people how to read and write for the first time. They were some of the first African Americans to earn wage labor.

And so a lot of people -- photographers came down and they were taking pictures of the enslaved people.

Geoff Bennett: That's extraordinary.

Do you happen to know which of these folks are connected to you?

Darius Brown: I wish I did, but I know that my family is somewhere in there.


Geoff Bennett: Yes. Well, just having the picture is enough.

Malika Pryor-Martin: I have had the benefit of knowing my family history. And, fortunately, it was couched with most folks don't know this stuff, so I had a degree of appreciation and I had a level of awareness that it wasn't common for someone to be able to trace their lineage eight generations.

And for a lot of Americans, that's not even necessarily the easiest thing to do.

Geoff Bennett: You can trace your lineage eight generations?

Malika Pryor-Martin: Yes, at least on one line.

Geoff Bennett: Wow.

Malika Pryor-Martin says the journey of turning over historical stones can reveal much pain, but also joy.

Malika Pryor-Martin: There are thousands of those stories, and when we have the opportunity to discover them for ourselves, then we can confirm without question and doubt we're brave, we're smart. We have the capacity to strategize, to have empathy, to forgive, to fight, I know I have said it already before, but to love.

There's something pretty radical about living under conditions that really aren't built for you to survive, and to still choose to love.

Geoff Bennett: Yes. Yes. And tracing one's history to that is -- it's unmatched.

Malika Pryor-Martin: That's right.

Geoff Bennett: Yes.

Malika Pryor-Martin: That's right.

Geoff Bennett: People keep probing their hunches, intuitions, and presumptions of their past, trying to see if they can pin down where their family roots truly lie.

And that museum is such a resource. They offer virtual consultations to help point people to records they might not even be aware of as they try to piece together their family history.

Amna Nawaz: It's so amazing. I love the full circle poetry of reclaiming that space and putting it at the Wharf, that museum.

Geoff Bennett: It's really something.

Amna Nawaz: Such a great story.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.