Beaufort News

Familiar St. Helena face to shape Charleston’s International African American Museum

Victoria Smalls
Victoria Smalls Submitted

Victoria Smalls might one day return to St. Helena Island, where she grew up on land with farm animals and not far from what she deems sacred ground.

The Penn Center campus is where her father graduated from Penn School and her parents met during the Civil Rights movement. It’s where she most recently worked in various roles for five years.

“It felt like a natural thing for me to be there,” Smalls said.

But Smalls has moved on from the place she felt such a strong connection to.

She found an opportunity she says will allow her to grow while keeping a hand in what she knows well — the Lowcountry’s Gullah history and culture. In July, Smalls became program manager for the fledgling International African American Museum in Charleston and moved to Mt. Pleasant.

The museum’s temporary office is on Calhoun Street across from Emanuel AME Church. On her first day in the city she heard multiple languages during a three-block walk to lunch, noted the many tourists and variety of food.

It was an adjustment for Smalls, whose mother objected to the bustle after a brief stint on Hilton Head Island and moved the family back to St. Helena.

The Charleston museum is a $75 million project expected to break ground next year on the waterfront and be built by 2019. When finished, its exhibits will tell the story of South Carolina’s role in the slave trade and will allow visitors to trace their ancestry through the enslaved Africans who arrived in Charleston.

Smalls said she expects the remaining $25 million needed in private donations will be raised this fall.

At Penn Center, Smalls worked in development and marketing and as its director of art, history and culture. With the museum, she is learning fundraising software and will eventually have a hand in a little of everything, including filling out a staff.

The staff already had Beaufort County ties.

Michael Boulware Moore, the museum’s president and CEO, is the great-great grandson of Beaufort hero Robert Smalls. Victoria Smalls, no known relation to Robert Smalls, pointed out that the new museum will look out into the harbor where Robert Smalls, once enslaved in Beaufort, stole a Confederate ship and navigated it to freedom.

Moore and Victoria Smalls were part of a recent workshop to help shape the stories that will be told at the national monument to Reconstruction planned for Beaufort County. Smalls noted that in a recent interview, Moore said he wanted to reach out and work with similar organizations, mentioning Penn Center first.

“It made me feel very proud,” Smalls said. “I feel like I can still be that liaison, that connection to home.”

Stephen Fastenau: 843-706-8182, @IPBG_Stephen