History, it’s been said, belongs to everyone. That’s why communities bear the responsibility of sharing lessons from one generation to the next.
As such, says the International African American Museum’s chief operating officer, Elijah Heyward, “our museum belongs to the citizens of Charleston, who have contributed their time, hopes and resources to bring our vision to reality.” And without partners such as the construction team led by Brownstone Construction Group and Turner Construction, Heyward adds, “we would not exist.”
The spirit of community was put to the test last year following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, with impassioned Black Lives Matter demonstrations taking place just blocks from the IAAM construction site. Also near the site was Charleston’s own recent racial tragedy—Mother Emanual AME Church, where just five years earlier, a white gunman killed nine parishioners.
Brownstone project manager Bobby Teachey says that while the project team communicated with Charleston Police before, during and after the demonstrations, “there were no major concerns for any potential issues to the jobsite.” Teachey, an African-American military veteran who served in Iraq, characterizes the additional site security measures at IAAM as being as “nothing more than the typical precautions you would be aware of, in any downtown setting.”
Still, there was little doubt that the unrest sparked by Floyd’s death had implications far beyond safeguarding a high-profile construction site. Brownstone president Dale Collier explains that from the outset, involvement with what he calls “more than just another job” has carried a deeper, personal meaning for many participants—himself included.
“Being a direct descendent of those who this building will immortalize is a humbling experience,” says Collier, an African-American who grew up in a small South Carolina town with its own history of secession and slavery. “It’s an experience that will instill pride and commitment in our staff for the remainder of our careers.”
The commitment to diversity and inclusion that underscored Brownstone’s partnership with Turner was carried over into efforts to maximize participation by minority and local trade partners, not to mention the everyday challenges of tackling a complicated construction project.
“Our onsite team members were stewards of communication for the neighborhood,” says Mark Dent, Turner’s Carolinas region vice president and general manager. “We were always conscious and considerate of the range of emotional significance that this project elicits for many people.”
Though those principles had been ingrained throughout the project team long before BLM protests began, Brownstone-Turner immediately reminded trade partners of its no-tolerance policy for any form of discrimination or racial intimidation. The team also recognized that emotions kindled by Floyd’s death could not and should not be easily set aside.
“Our leadership team immediately met with the entire project team to discuss their concerns and needs both in regards to site security and personal well-being,” says Dent. “We encouraged people to take the time needed to process their feelings and provided the opportunity to do so, no questions asked.”
Though BLM may no longer dominate the headlines, the movement’s message and lessons continue to resonate throughout the construction industry. IAAM is one of many Turner jobsites where the company is engaging in what Dent calls “courageous conversations” with teams and individuals in an effort to further build “the culture of empathy on our projects.”
Teachey is hopeful that when IAAM begins its education series after opening in 2022, “there will be a space for these open conversations of unity and the unique history behind this building and its impact to Charleston and beyond.”