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Telling slaves' stories
Charleston leaders feel the time has come for a slavery museum there. They hope to open a museum by 2005. By PAMELA GOULD

 Shackles from collection of Charleston's Avery Research Center.
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Date published: 8/11/2002

Charleston ready to revisit its past

CHARLESTON, S.C.--This city on the banks of the Cooper River is a place of architectural charm, abundant history and a diverse cultural heritage.

But until recently, a key component in this Colonial port's development into one of the nation's first centers of wealth was largely--and some would say intentionally--ignored.

It was the dark truth no one wanted to acknowledge--that Charleston would never have emerged as a bustling center of commerce and culture had it not been for the sweat and skill of its enslaved inhabitants.

Over the past six to eight years, however, that attitude has been changing, says W. Marvin Dulaney, chairman of the College of Charleston history department and executive director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.

The West Africans whose hands built the three- and four-story "single houses" Charleston is famous for, as well as those whose centuries-old expertise in growing rice built the region's economy, are beginning to get their due.

And it is in that environment--one in which an increasing number of attractions speak of the contributions and living conditions of the enslaved work force--that plans are emerging for a museum telling the story of slavery.

A bold proposal

In a state where displaying the Confederate battle flag atop the Capitol is still a hotly debated topic, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.'s proposal to build a slavery museum could have been greeted by rebel rallying cries.

Instead, the only organized dissension so far has come from a group of local historians. And even they aren't opposed to the idea--just concerned about funding the $37 million proposal and how this museum will fit into their already-launched efforts to increase attention on African-American history.

The group, known as the Charleston Heritage Foundation, is comprised of the directors of seven nonprofit organizations, including state and local historical groups, two local plantations and the Avery Research Center. They want Riley to consider spending less on the structure--possibly $10 million--and putting the remaining $27 million into an endowment for research.

Their vision is for the new museum--slated to open in about five years--to serve as a starting point in telling the story of the city's rich African-American heritage and to then point visitors to the other sites that complete the picture.

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