The good news is that both locations, Gadsden’s Wharf in South Carolina and Valongo Wharf in Rio de Janeiro, stand on the verge of recognition, restoration, and memorialization but at far distant stages. Individually and together, they represent attempts to honor the victims of the largest forced migration in human history. But grief will not reign supreme at either location. They will be places of vibrant celebration of African history and culture as well.
The International African American Museum in Charleston, at the Gadsden Wharf site, will begin its timeline in 300 BC, linking West African rice cultivation and the human history of that part of the continent. The formal history of the museum begins with the "discovery" of the remains of the wharf as part of property that was originally sold to a restaurateur. The former mayor, Joseph P. Riley, approved a re-acquisition of the parcel, having a sense of the timeliness and importance of such a project to the city's Black residents and its prospects to further spur tourism (and perhaps unknowingly gentrification).
Two decades ago, as a journalist recently recollected, Charleston was a "sleepy Navy town juxtaposed within an old aristocratic porch society." Riley had bigger plans.
The museum's planning began more than two decades ago.
Today, the city is a target for millions of tourists, cruise ship passengers, and a new breed of snowbirds now realizing that they don't need to fly all the way to Florida for higher temperatures. Actual construction began in January 2020. The opening was set for January 21, 2023, but recently postponed.
A trove of African artifacts were unearthed at the Valongo level, including amulets and worship objects from the Congo, Angola, and Mozambique.
Meanwhile, Charleston's perennial racial problems were on display for the world to see: battles over confederate flags and statues, the Mother Emmanuel shooting, and the city's formal apology for its role in the slave trade.
Riley was able to corral $100 million dollars in funding for museum construction from the city, state, other localities, and organizations. In 2018, The New York Times had recognized that Charleston had long needed and deserved a Black museum.
The structure, on top of the wharf, will have a sweeping view of the river and recurring architectural motifs of granite and water. There will be a theater gallery, ethnobotanical gardens, an African roots and routes gallery, and much more. In a membership solicitation letter, current president and CEO Dr. Tonya Matthews states, ".... And today something new has sprung up through the scarred soil of Gadsden's Wharf. We have reclaimed this sacred place as only part of the African American journey by building the museum on this very ground." Many in the city are holding their collective breathes waiting for opening day; the unspoken dream of generations of Black Charlestonians who had always hoped that their lives and struggles would not be consigned to oblivion.
In an article entitled "Valongo: An Uncomfortable Legacy,” Current Anthropology magazine (Vol. 61, No. S22) noted that: "In 2011, the United Nations promoted the International Year for People of African Descent in order to 'redouble our efforts to fight against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance that affect people of African descent everywhere.'" That same year, in a happy coincidence, Valongo Wharf was unearthed in Rio de Janeiro, the largest port of arrival for enslaved Africans in Brazil in the nineteenth century. Archeological excavations had been made possible by the urban infrastructure works carried out in the port area for the 2016 Olympics."