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New African-American museum in Charleston

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Council approves city funding for museum

Charleston will contribute $250,000 to kick-start African-American project

BY DAVID SLADE

Of The Post and Courier Staff

Is the planned International African American Museum a $60 million boondoggle in the making, or a crucial institution for Charleston, given the city's role as the main port of entry for slaves? With Mayor Joe Riley asking the city to commit a quarter-million dollars to kick-start the project after several years of lackluster fund raising, Charleston City Council members engaged in a spirited debate Tuesday about providing public money for the museum.

The museum's steering committee has had little success in attracting private donations, raising just $179,000 during the past several years.

Councilman Henry Fishburne said he knows supporters of the museum have good intentions, but he believes the project is unrealistic.

"There already are a number of African-American museums in other cities," Fishburne said. "I don't think a large one here in Charleston would be economically viable."

Councilmen Robert George and Larry Shirley also raised concerns about the project, and joined Fishburne in unsuccessfully trying to block the contribution of a quarter-million city dollars.

City Council approved the measure 8 to 3.

The museum envisioned by Riley would sit on city-donated land adjacent to the South Carolina Aquarium, which itself was built partially with city loans. Supporters had hoped the museum could open in 2007, but the project has essentially no funding.

"Overwhelmingly, the money will have to come from the private sector," Riley said.

George said he is concerned that the price tag has risen from an estimated $40 million five years ago to the current $60 million, yet no detailed plans have been produced and little private support has been demonstrated.

"I'm concerned about mission creep," he said. "I am concerned we are starting down a path we don't understand."

George noted that a $250,000 consulting contract with American History Workshop, approved in 2003, was supposed to have been paid for with privately raised money. Instead, the city's money will be used for some of that cost because fund-raising efforts fell short.

The mayor, Councilwoman Anne Frances Bleecker -- a member of the museum's steering committee -- and the four black councilmen present Tuesday rallied to defend the appropriation of city money, and the concept of the museum.

Councilmen Wendell Gilliard, Kwadjo Campbell and James Lewis contrasted the reluctance to help the museum with $250,000 to the city's prior willingness to offer large incentives to attract a museum for the Confederate submarine Hunley and the spending of $1.9 million for a tunnel at the municipal golf course.

"It seems like when you are talking about a black museum, everybody wants to investigate," Gilliard said after Fishburne handed out his research showing how many other cities have black history museums.

Campbell said the museum could also help the aquarium by drawing more visitors to the area, creating "synergy."

"The story of fish may be exciting," he said, "but there's nothing like the story of human experience."

Gilliard said the city should give at least $1 million to support the International African American Museum, though no other council members voiced support for increasing the amount of funding.

Shirley said that his main concern is that the city seems to be alone in its support for the concept.

"I don't think we should be in this by ourselves," he said.

George said he believes a large museum dedicated to African-American history would minimize the living history found all over Charleston.

"There's hardly anything we see in our city, of historical significance, that was not built by men in bondage," he said. "By building a large museum ... we minimize all the other opportunities we have."

Riley said the museum shouldn't be scaled back, because Charleston's role in the history of African Americans was not small.

"Our role is substantial, in America," he said.

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This article just came out in today's P & C. The funny thing is that they're spending all of this money on a tunnel for the city golf course AND there is no type of private donations to keep the Hunley Museum downtown in the same location as the aquarium and the planned AA Museum.

I think the AA museum would be a cool project, but they need to also find ways to prioritize the projects and get the city council thinking in the same direction.

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