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An African American Museum that costs $60 million? A Contentious Issue.

Remember the Aquarium
Warwick Jones, Editor

Remember 10 years ago when Aquariums were the rage of the nation. Many cities aspired to build one and some actually did - to their ultimate sorrow. All are financially against the ropes and Charleston's is no exception. Ours cost over $80 million and is losing nearly $2 million a year.

Well, the latest fashion is African American museums. And the Mayor of Charleston feels the city should have one, even if it costs $50 or $60 million. Mind you, we are not against the idea of a museum. If there is a place in the US where such a museum is justified, it is Charleston. The port was the most important gateway into the nation for slave traffic. But $60 million? If the experience with the Aquarium is any guide, the proposed museum will cost more. And what about running costs and patronage? Will the museum turn out to be another fiscal drag on the City?

Let's start with the price tag
There are a host of issues that bother us about this museum. Let's start with the most obvious - the $50 to $60 million price tag. Where is the money coming from? After the experience of the Aquarium, how many big donors are out there prepared to pony up the dollars? Most of the obvious targets have already been hit for the Aquarium and are still contributing to keep the facility's head above water. The State and Federal Governments will probably contribute something but most likely some 80% of the funding will have to come from fat-wallet donors. We haven't taken a poll, but we would be prepared to bet that the City's residents will not happily fund a $50 million or more facility, or take on the liability of some millions of dollars a year to keep the museum open and fund exhibitions. Initial indications of potential financing are not encouraging. Less than $200,000 has been raised over the last few years but to be fair, the effort was not intense. The City Council voted recently to appropriate $250,000 to fund a detailed study of the proposed museum.

Strong argument for Charleston to have a museum
So why is the Mayor proposing such a costly museum? Because of the historic role of Charleston in the slave trade and the worthiness of such a project. He has a point, a strong one, but forgive us if we are a tad cynical. We didn't have to consider spending $50 million or more to provide a museum. The McLeod plantation was an ideal site for such a museum. It was more appropriate and would have cost around a $1 million. Even with refurbishing, the cost of the plantation would have run well below $10 million. But the Mayor was intent on allowing the Historic Charleston Foundation to sell McLeod to the American School of Building Arts despite strong opposition.

But why now, 30 years into the Mayors tenure?
The Mayor of Charleston has held his mayoral position for nearly 30 years. It has been only in recent years that he has proposed an African American museum. One wonders why he pondered so long. History hasn't changed in the intervening years. Could it be that the Mayor is making another attempt to prop up the Aquarium? The museum will be located across from the Aquarium. In conjunction with the development of Ansonborough Field, it should bring more foot (and other) traffic to the area surrounding the Aquarium. This seems a logical conclusion. But we are not convinced that a museum and development of Ansonborough Field will right the finances of the Aquarium. Indeed, we fear the City will end up with two large loss-incurring enterprises on it hands. So at the very least, we would suggest that the Mayor give consideration to reducing the size of the proposed museum. We think a project with a lower cost than that proposed would be more appropriate. Not only would the potential risk to the City be less, but it could be up and running earlier.

Some questions from the black community
And what does the African American community think of the museum? There are certainly proponents, particularly friends of the mayor. And the majority of City Council is in favor, including all the African American members. But there are others that are cynical and question the Mayor's intention. How much has the Mayor done for the black community of Charleston? Has he really tried hard to provide "affordable housing" or has the effort been token? More will be spent by the City on a tunnel linking the two sides of the municipal gold course this year than spent on "affordable housing". And do you remember that citizens approved a $10 million bond issue in a 2002 referendum to fund "affordable housing"? The Mayor has done nothing since that time to raise the funds and apply them to the purpose that voters approved. Was this a cynical move to garner black votes? He now suggests spending $50 million or more on an African American museum because he feels some obligation to the black community. How much better if the cost of the museum were scaled down and funds diverted in some way to the benefit of the black community?

How effective will such a museum in evoking the past?
We cannot say that an African American museum located close to the Aquarium and costing $50 to $60 million will fail in it purpose, or prove a fiscal drain to the City. But we would make some observations. What will be the contents of the museum? The legacy of slavery is not an array of beautiful ornaments and art. Its very nature precluded the creation of these items. Yes, there will be artifacts and these will remind us of the oppression and degradation. Individually or collectively, the impact of these things is likely to be limited. Indeed, the impact will depend more on the imagination of the viewer than their raw appearance. In consequence, the success of the museum may lay more with special exhibitions, demonstrations, and cultural displays.

The real legacy of slavery is the spirit that it has imbued in African Americans. It was suppressed up until the Civil War and still largely suppressed until 40 years ago. It has risen strongly since then with the encouragement of Martin Luther King and his supporters. Its ultimate height has still to be measured. The manifestation of this spirit was first seen in the music of slaves, the spiritual. It was an appeal to God, but also a solace in those times of much personal grief. And is was the music of slaves that shaped so much of modern American music, both popular and classical - Spirituals, blues, ragtime, boogie wooggie, jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and music by such composers as George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. This is something that cannot be put into a museum.

And what about Charleston itself? The City is the true museum to show-case African American history. The buildings and streets in the Historic district, so much built with slave labor. And thre is the old Slave mart. These things can't be put into a museum. But they can be highlighted in special City tours.

Why wasn't McLeod chosen?
Which brings us back to the McLeod Plantation. If there is any building that would serve well as an African American museum, it is McLeod. There it is with its oak avenues, and draping Spanish moss. The house is not grand by the standards of the South but it is what it is, and old plantation house once owned by folk who worked the farm with slave labor. The slave cabins are there as well as the bones of generations of slaves. In its present state, it may not capture the spirit of the African American folk who lived and toiled there, but it is not a giant leap to imagine conditions back in slave days. You can feel the history, you can touch the history. You can sit in the grounds, and reflect on the history. And a son et lumiere with spirituals on a summer evening, under the live oak trees could only be a moving experience. But a museum at McLeod may now be a lost cause.

African Americans may feel resentment if museum is not built
It is perhaps hard for white folk to fully appreciate the feelings of an African American. And in a metaphorical sense, the black community still bears the scars from the past and, with reason, an element of resentment. Why can't you spend $50 million on more on a museum? Isn't slavery and the suppression of blacks a sufficiently important issue to merit such an outlay? It doesn't matter if museums are built elsewhere. Charleston's role in the trade was paramount. The museum in this City should be the best!

Citizens may be sympathetic but are suspicious of City Administration
Maybe this argument - the City deserves the best - would be accepted by the whole community but for the fact that it is now being pushed by the Mayor of Charleston. One need only think of the Aquarium. It was to cost much less than the ultimate $80 million price tag, it was not to involve City funding, and was to be profitable - all of which proved untrue. Indeed, it has proved a drain on the resources of the community. It is only viable because of gifts and grants. and has little hope of being immediately cash flow positive from an operational view point.

Mayor Riley has never been the slightest bit contrite about the path down which he led Charleston citizens. He tells Council that the Aquarium is breaking even when in fact it is not. He points to the great service it provides to the community, which it may, but at what a cost!

Council members bear responsibility
And Council members, particularly many of the black members, bear some responsibility for the skepticism that surrounds proposals by the Mayor. With the exception of a few members, Council rarely stands up to the Mayor and generally acquiesces to his demands. It shows little inclination to restrain the Mayor in what we might describe as controversial issues. So with a Mayor intent on getting what he wants and an always- compliant council, it is no wonder that some citizens are wary and suspicious.

With a Mayor that is more responsive to citizen's concerns, less stubborn in his intentions, apologetic for his mistakes, and with a more critical and demanding Council and a more transparent administration, maybe the $50 to $60 million museum would breeze through Council with unanimous approval. It may also have the endorsement of the City's citizens. Sadly, African Americans may suffer not only from the legacy of the distant past, but also from more recent times. And the legacy of more recent times is distrust of the plans, motives and ability of the present City administration.

Your Comments:

As far as I know, I am the second person to ever reply to any of the columns written on Charleston Watch. That says something about its influence and reach.

I have two basic points:

1] The article on the African-American Museum is filled with errors and misstatments which, I believe, are intended to fill a preconceived position of the writer, a person who has lived here less than five-years. To the writer I say: your criticism of the Mayor, who is the best mayor in the country, shows your distinct lack of understanding about this city--where is was when he became mayor and where it is. If your position on issues was policy, you may well never have considered living here.

Some incorrect statements: The Aquarium is not a drain on the City. It is owned by a non-profit corporation and is not controlled or managed by the City. The Mayor is not even on the Board. Likewise, the African-American Museum will be owned by a non-profit. Funding will come from a national appeal and is headed by President Clinton, which attracts credibility and dollars. You clearly do not know what is being done on affordable housing.

2] On another subject, your criticism of Mayor Riley's position on Councilmember Campbell in December has been proven wrong by the Councilmember's actions last week. Once again, you show just how little you know or understand about the wonderful city.

I note that you posted your missive at 1:29am. May I suggest that you get more sleep and study things more closely?


Posted by: Lawrence O. Thompson at March 1, 2005 03:09 PM

We welcome Mr Thompson's comments, critical though they may be. We certainly would welcome more comments and it was the original intention of Charlestonwatch to publish all comments. However, a lot of unwelcome and offensive spam and porn has been posted. It takes a lot of time and effort to erase these things. In an attempt to better manage the site, we have confined comments in recent months to only the most recent stories.

Posted by: The Editor at March 1, 2005 04:56 PM

Once again, you go right to the point. Your work on affordable housing was good, and your recent comments on the African-American museum fit with plans we hope to accomplish. Friends of McLeod are working on a document called Pathways: A Vision for McLeod. In it, we propose a Heritage Trail (not unlike Boston's) where the few remaining areas to experience black history in Charleston make up a short tour with the Old Slave Market and McLeod as anchors. The pathways refer to sights that can still be seen on the plantation, from the Sea Island agrarian, the Civil War, and the cabins and the cemeteries - all different pathways, but all important.

Keep up your good work.

Posted by: Carol Jacobsen at March 8, 2005 09:37 PM