The Museum of You: The International African American Museum Wants to Personalize African-American History With Its Genealogy Center

Renderings of International African American Museum (Courtesy of IAAM)
Renderings of International African American Museum (Courtesy of IAAM)

Museums can impart a vast amount of information to visitors, sharing with them history, culture, science, art. But what if a museum could personalize your own story, your own background and your own history? That is exactly what the International African American Museum is hoping to do with the launch Tuesday of its Center for Family History.


The center is a national genealogy research center that’s dedicated to celebrating and researching African-American ancestry—with a focus on engaging in genealogy education, original research, community archiving and even assisting with DNA testing.

Welcome to the museum of you.

“I think the center really is going to personalize the experience for the museum visitor. It’s one thing to walk into a museum and see an exhibit about family history, but it’s quite another thing to possibly walk out of a research center at a museum with your great-grandfather’s marriage record,” Toni Carrier, a nationally recognized genealogist, founder of Lowcountry Africana and the program lead for the center, told The Root about the project. “Those are the kind of things that we’d be ready to help with.”

Michael Boulware Moore, president and CEO of the International African American Museum, added: “For the vast majority of African Americans, it is really difficult to go back ... to really dive into your family history, and we have in Toni and her team one of the most accomplished and pre-eminent resources around African-American genealogy, and so we really are just looking forward to empowering people to connect them with their past in a way that will just really clarify foundational questions around their identity: Who are you? Where do you come from? Who are your ancestors?”

The IAAM is scheduled to open in Charleston, S.C., in late 2019 or early 2020. The Root Chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose genealogy work is world-renowned, sits on its national advisory board. The museum will be located on the historic Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston—the very site where almost half of all enslaved Africans took their first steps on American soil. The museum hopes to become a place of pilgrimage for African Americans around the country to pay homage to their ancestors by interacting on the site where they arrived.

But even while many anticipate the museum’s opening, they will still have a chance to first interact online with the Center for Family History.

Carrier noted that those interested in their family history could get help starting their genealogy research or, if they have started but have become stuck—which is a scenario all too familiar for many—the center would be more than willing to help them find other angles to approach.


The center will be staffed by a team of experienced genealogists and historians to digitize records, present online research tutorials and produce scholarly articles. The center will be completely prepared to assist with DNA testing, including helping visitors choose a company to test with, all the way through to using the resources online, and eventually on-site, to interpret those DNA results for patrons to help them make the most of the testing. All the resources will be 100 percent free.

“The website as it launches [Tuesday] contains the collection of marriage records that is searchable and browsable, we will also have a collection of obituaries and funeral programs for people to search through,” Carrier added.


“One of my favorite parts of the website, and I think probably what’s going to be one of the most popular parts of the website, is our Ancestor Archive. This is where we will have a gallery of ancestor photos that people have shared, and if they wish to, they can also hear a story about that ancestor that’s in that photo. ... We will have a way for our website visitors to actually submit their own photos [and stories of their ancestors],” she said.

Carrier added that the overriding theme of the website is to celebrate the ancestors while bringing them back into a historical light.


“We want the website to be a place where we can interact with our website visitors and they feel comfortable asking any questions they have ... we want them to feel comfortable to be able to interact with us and make use [of] the resources that we have on the website,” she said.

Carrier is very familiar with this kind of work, having conducted research on former first lady Michelle Obama’s ancestry and actually tracing her paternal roots to Gadsden’s Wharf.


“These services will be offered within the context of this museum. ... It’ll be a very meaningful, a very emotional experience. You’ll be learning about African-American history and a lot of different aspects of it,” Moore added, referencing the exhibits and other information the museum administration hopes to share with patrons on-site and online. “There’ll be a lot of things that make the experience of then learning more about who you are individually just much more powerful.

“If you are African American, you will gain a broader sense of your identity, of your contribution to this nation, of the sacrifices that people who look just like you made in creating the country that we know today,” Moore continued. “To have the opportunity to even further personalize that history, to get a deeper sense of your personal identity, to walk away and to really understand who your ancestors are ... this is blood that courses through our veins ... to be reconnected with that identity and with that history, it will be life changing.”

News Editor at The Root, animation nerd, soca junkie, yogi


Brigitte Bardot's black wig

This looks really interesting, and I’m so struck by the fact that it’s going to be in Charleston. When I was a kid, my family and I went to Charleston on vacation and went to the Old Slave Mart Museum - the only extant known slave auction building in South Carolina. It was amazing in part because it was one of the first places I’d ever seen personal stories of individual slaves and what had happened to them (as far as was known) along with sketches and photographs.

One that stuck in my head for some reason was a husband and wife who escaped - she was passing, and he was dark, so they made their way up the Eastern seaboard pretending that she was a woman traveling and he was her servant. At age nine (and even now), I couldn’t fathom what it took to be able to do that (and even as difficult as that was, they had an “advantage” because she could pass).

The displays in the museum also described vividly the tearing apart of families and general, well, inhumanity of treating other humans as property.

It’s been a very long time and I don’t remember the place well (there could certainly be some very problematic aspects), but it made a hell of an impression on me at an age when I hadn’t been exposed to any of this history.