The G&G Interview

Charleston’s New International African American Museum

Meet Michael Boulware Moore, the man behind the new museum that will illuminate the South’s African American history

Photo: Margaret Houston

Michael Boulware Moore knows intimately the power of history. In the wee hours of May 13, 1862, his great-great-grandfather, an enslaved boat pilot named Robert Smalls, stole a Confederate ship and steamed out of the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor past rebel batteries. Smalls delivered the prize, along with the enslaved crew and their families, to Union troops. Yet Smalls was just one in a line of Moore’s ancestors who formed the country’s narrative through bold, righteous action. So it’s fitting that the fifty-four-year-old former marketing executive for the likes of Coca-Cola and General Foods was named the new president and CEO of the Holy City’s forthcoming International African American Museum. Through the project—hatched by the former mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr., and set for completion in 2019—Moore hopes to cast light on these and other long-buried events.

Too many of these stories have been untold.

Joe Riley compares African American history to a fresh archaeological dig—the more dirt you brush off the top, the more history is revealed. If you know who Benjamin Franklin was, you should also know Denmark Vesey, Robert Smalls, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. It’s all part of what makes this country great.

A large part of that record is also painful.

We have to present it honestly. I feel an obligation to those ancestors who gave everything they had—life, liberty, and happiness—to help build this country. But we will also tell stories of achievement and perseverance, of people overcoming their circumstances. 

Like Smalls, for instance.

When I was growing up, that story helped me feel good about where I stood in the world. Here’s a man who at twenty-three was enslaved but who was desperate for freedom. He had the audacity to concoct a plan and the skill to execute it brilliantly. He could have gone north and lived as a hero. Instead, he came back to the crucible of the war and fought for the Union. He joined the South Carolina legislature and helped create the first free and compulsory statewide public education system in the country. Smalls overcame obstacles to live a life of consequence. I’ve been blessed with some really great jobs. But this is the first time I’ve felt a real calling. I feel a lot of pressure, not just to raise money and build a great museum, but to answer to my ancestors.

How will this project differ from the National Museum of African American History and Culture?

Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director [of the Washington, D.C., museum], told me, “We’re presenting history, whereas you’ve got it down there.” We’re going to be smaller, but we have the power of place—the chance to create a museum on Gadsden’s Wharf. People arrived at Ellis Island in a very different context, but Gadsden’s Wharf serves as a place where many African Americans can say, “This is where our folk came to this country.” Historians say almost half of all enslaved Africans were brought to Charleston—forty percent of them directly to Gadsden’s Wharf—and that’s why so many African Americans can trace a relative who came through Charleston. We’re planning the Center for Family History, which we expect to be the leading genealogical archive for African Americans in the country.

The museum’s scope will include the larger contributions of African Americans, particularly in South Carolina.

Charleston’s wealth came from rice and the slave trade. African Americans played a big role in creating this wealth. There was no rice industry in America prior to the arrival of the West Africans. They knew how to construct locks and dams and how to leverage the tides.

How will the museum address the present—in particular today’s race-related problems?

I’m hopeful we can create spaces where people of different backgrounds and perspectives can come together, and that collectively we’ll move forward. This museum will have very wide doors. Everybody is going to be welcome.