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International African American Museum opens where enslaved Africans entered the U.S.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A South Carolina city known for cobblestone streets and antebellum homes is embracing its less-talked-about legacy of slavery. Nearly half of all enslaved Africans in the U.S. came through Charleston. Today the city's opening its new International African American Museum on a site that was central to that painful history. South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen takes us there.

VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: Built on 13-foot pillars, the museum rises above Gadsden's Wharf overlooking the Charleston Harbor. The wharf is where slave ships docked and 100,000 shackled Africans were forced ashore during the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The museum is lofted above the ground to honor the lives lost there. The opening ceremony was celebrated with passionate speeches, poetry and West African drumming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HANSEN: Speaking before the crowd, former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley says he vowed to build this museum more than 20 years ago to teach what he was never taught. Africans were brutalized as slaves and forced to build a nation's wealth they did not share. Riley says those truths are important to our nation's narrative.

JOE RILEY: Because truth sets us free - free to understand, free to respect...

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HANSEN: This museum explores the untold stories of the Africans who were brought to this place, the lives they lived and how their labor shaped America. They are stories of bondage but also resilience. Outside the museum, visitors are met with a powerful image evoking the earliest experience of Africans taken from their homes to lives of slavery.

BRANDON REID: Now, what you'll see on the ground are outlines of these human bodies.

HANSEN: That's public historian and tour guide Brandon Reid. He points to a shallow reflecting pool with engraved figures along the bottom. Each represents a man, woman or child who was packed into the hull of a slave ship, unable to move for weeks or months. But this museum is about more than slavery. As visitors walk inside, they're surrounded by a series of towering video screens, flashing photographs set to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HANSEN: The pictures show Africans and African Americans around the world, past and present. This is the museum's largest gallery, and it explores the trans-Atlantic experience from gut-wrenching depictions of the Middle Passage to joyous scenes of contemporary life. In all, there are nine galleries with more than 150 historical artifacts. In one, a wall displays the names and ages of Africans who were taken from their homeland.

REID: Jegway, 21; Jimby, 20; Jeer, 7.

HANSEN: Another wall shows the names those same people were given after they arrived at Gadsden's Wharf.

REID: Rachel, Eve, Jacob.

HANSEN: In another exhibit, a worn, tattered sack sits in a glass case. It was given to a 9-year-old girl by her mother before the child was taken away from her. And it once held a lock of the mother's hair, a reminder for the girl of who she was. Dr. Tonya Matthews, the museum's CEO and president, says these displays are painful but important.

TONYA MATTHEWS: I personally don't do safe spaces. I do courageous spaces.

HANSEN: Matthews says that while the history the museum tells is difficult, the museum's opening is an achievement.

MATTHEWS: When I stand at the edge of the wharf and look at what we're doing, I'm reminded that this is likely something that we survived for.

HANSEN: She hopes the museum will create dialogue about race and inequality at a time when teaching those subjects in classrooms has become intensely controversial.

MATTHEWS: Learning something new is never the enemy.

HANSEN: Outside the museum, a black granite wall displays part of the Maya Angelou poem "And Still I Rise," which visitors can see both coming and going.

BERNARD POWERS: Yes, yes, yes. And I rise. And I rise.

HANSEN: Dr. Bernard Powers, the museum's lead historian, has spent several years pushing this project forward. He vividly remembers the giant hole from excavation where remnants of the original wharf were found.

POWERS: A lot has arisen here so far, and there's much more to come.

HANSEN: He hopes the museum will inspire and educate future generations. For NPR News, I'm Victoria Hansen in Charleston, S.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF KILLER MIKE SONG, "RUN FT. DAVE CHAPPELLE AND YOUNG THUG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.