Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series about the Aiken Together campaign that was recently announced to raise funds through private donations for the Center for African American History, Art and Culture, the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum and the funding to open a Savannah River Site Heritage Center. Today's story covers the Center for African American History, Art and Culture.

Through the Aiken Together capital campaign, The Center for African American History, Art and Culture hopes to raise enough money to fund the finishing touches of its new home, the Immanuel Institute.

Aiken Together seeks $2.9 million over the span of five years through pledged donations for three institutions, which all hope to serve the Aiken community with stories about the area's history. The private donations would allocate 41 percent of the funding for the Center, 28 percent for the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum and 31 percent to open a Savannah River Site Heritage Center.

The Rev. Douglas Slaughter, chairman of the Center for African American History, Art and Culture, said the site – formerly known as the Immanuel Institute for the children of newly freed slaves, located at 120 York St. – would provide the residents and tourists with history beginning in Africa all the way to the art, music and military service throughout the Aiken area today.

“There are a couple of reasons this Center is so important,” Slaughter said. “It's to preserve the contributions of African- Americans in Aiken County because it's such a rich history. The first African-American Baptist church is in Aiken County, and Aiken County is the only county in South Carolina that was established during Reconstruction by African-Americans who were part of the Statehouse.”

Exhibits give timelines of African-American history

The center will open two educational classrooms to be used for after-school programs and programs for students during the school year. Tours will cover the culture and geography of West Africa – including food and animals – and exhibits will display how African culture became a part of American culture. Individuals will leave the African village and enter “The Door of No Return,” a slave ship to provide an experience of what it is like to be in the Middle Passage.

After visitors “arrive” in Charleston, various exhibits, murals and kiosks will allow individuals to follow a historical African-American timeline, learn about the Civil Rights movement and the Northern migration. There will be a music and listening lab where museumgoers can listen and learn about jazz and blues as well as the African-American impact on the arts.

“Around the Kitchen Table,” an interactive exhibit with two big tables used for individuals to contribute their favorite memories around the kitchen table, is Slaughter's favorite.

“You can check out information about education, religious life, science and technology,” Slaughter said. “You can learn about men from Aiken who served in the War of 1812 and even do genealogy work to trace the roots of your family.”

Family reunions and businesses can also reserve the upstairs portion of the building, which will be complete with a full kitchen and staff who can also provide dinner theater for a more one-on-one experience, according to Slaughter.

Immanuel Institute in restoration since 2004

“We purchased the building through an accommodations tax grant,” Slaughter said. “And then we started a capital campaign raising $1 million. That $1 million went to restore the building to the way it looked like when we first purchased it. We began to up fit the downtown stairs with fire suppression and electricity.”

In response to why it has taken so long for the Center to complete a project to the fullest degree, Slaughter said a drop in the one-cent sales tax slowed the Center's progress for a while.

“The thing is, we have done everything in cash, and we have no debt,” Slaughter said. “And in reality, we thought we were going to get money from the one-cent sales tax. It was promised to us, but we never got that money, which kind of slowed us down. But bottom line is, we have done what we could do with the cash that we had. This is actually about a $2.5 million project. This Aiken Together campaign will allow us to complete the project.”

Through the Aiken Together capital campaign, Slaughter said returning the building to its former educational facility would be those most important piece.

“I came here 20 years ago, and what I discovered was a lot of citizens don't know how important African-Americans have been historically through the years,” Slaughter said. “The story hasn't yet been told.”

For questions about donations or information, call 706-724-1314 or email RSL@CFCSRA.org.

Maayan Schechter is the city beat reporter with Aiken Standard. She has a degree in mass communications-journalism from the University of North Carolina Asheville.