As RootsTech opens, LDS Church gives $2M toward a family history center at African-Americans’ ‘Ellis Island’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lattery-day Saint apostle David A. Bednar and Michael Boulware Moore, president of the International African American Museum, in Charleston, South Carolina, listen as Martin Luther King III discusses the LDS Church's $2 million donation to the IAAM museum, at the RootsTech convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

Nearly half of all enslaved Africans once disembarked on Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, S.C., waiting to be sold and distributed throughout the country.

Indeed, Christopher Gadsden used slave labor in the 1760s to build his 840-foot-long wharf, which is one of the most significant and sacred sites of the African-American experience in the Western Hemisphere.

That long swath of land now is the future home of the International African American Museum — and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is partnering to preserve and present the stories, sacrifices and contributions of all who arrived there and their descendants.

The church contribution comes in the form of a $2 million donation, announced Wednesday at the opening keynote session of the annual RootsTech family history and technology conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City.

Latter-day Saint apostle David A. Bednar presented Michael Boulware Moore, president and CEO of the International African American Museum (IAAM), with the large gift, earmarked for the creation of a Center for Family History within the museum.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) LDS apostle David A. Bednar, left, and Martin Luther King III, right, listen as Michael Boulware Moore, president of the International African American Museum, in Charleston South Carolina, discusses the LDS church's $2 million donation to the IAAM museum, at the RootsTech convention at the Salt Palace Convention Center, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

Bednar said he expects the IAAM Center for Family History, slated to begin construction this year and end in 2021, to become “one of the world’s pre-eminent centers for African-American genealogy,” helping guests reconnect to their personal histories in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The church is making “a concerted effort,” Bednar said, “to build a bridge back to Africa.”

Last year, he said, the church contracted with some 4,000 African native language speakers in 15 countries to conduct 44,000 oral interviews in different countries, cities, villages and clans. The initiative added some 16 million more names to the church’s database.

Upon announcing the museum gift, Bednar fist-bumped Moore, the museum’s creator.

“We don’t use checks anymore,” Bednar quipped, but assuring thousands of attendees that the church would wire-transfer the money in the morning.

For Moore, the museum and family history center fulfill a vision. The charismatic leader told the crowd he has deep roots in Charleston, where his great-great-great-great-grandmother arrived as a slave from Africa.

“One of the greatest casualties of slavery,” Moore said, “is our history, our understanding of where we came from. Our language and culture have been whitewashed away.”

The site is “ground zero” for so many slaves, he said. “We didn’t come through Ellis Island. Here’s a chance for African-Americans to have their own Ellis Island.”

The family history center, Moore said, “will empower people to find their strand in that story and personalize it in powerful ways.”

Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr., said the partnership between the church and the South Carolina museum is “reflection of the ‘beloved community’ his father envisioned.”

The Utah-based faith has a tortuous history with African-Americans, stemming from a centurylong ban on black men and boys being ordained to its all-male priesthood and women and girls entering its temples. That prohibition ended in 1978.

In recent years, the church has collaborated with the black community on several joint projects.

For example, the church has been digitizing hundreds of thousands of records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency Congress created at the end of the war to help the first generation of African-Americans experience freedom.

The LDS Church also has teamed up with the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, on a schooling and jobs push on the East Coast.

Are all these efforts an attempt to do penance for the church’s past?

No, Bednar said in an interview. “We have competencies in family history that we offer to anybody, anywhere.”

The values of the museum are a “perfect correspondence,” the apostle said, “to what we are trying to do as a church — connect people.”

Rootstech runs through Saturday.