Thanks to DNA research, 80 Charlestonians of African descent may learn more about their roots
Kenyatta Grimmage has spent his whole life wondering about the roots of his African ancestors.
“For most black and African-American people, there’s always that question in the back of my mind: ‘Where did my people come from?’” he said. “We really don’t know the truth.”
Grimmage, the assistant director of admissions at the College of Charleston, was one of 80 Charlestonians of African descent who participated in a study that will compare their DNA to the DNA found in bones of deceased Africans.
Adeyemi Oduwole, a biology major and rising senior at the college, will analyze the genomic diversity and genetic ancestry of the 80 people as part of the Gullah Society’s Anson Street Burials Project. Oduwole traveled to Philadelphia this summer, where he is analyzing the DNA alongside University of Pennsylvania researchers.
The impetus for the research was the 2013 discovery of the bodies of 36 Africans during the construction of the Gaillard Center. The bodies, found in what appeared to be a burial site near Anson Street, were dated to somewhere between 1760 and 1800.
In May, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania used bone sampling as a method to trace the DNA of the bodies. This research can explain geographic origins, migration patterns and possible biological kinship. Dr. Ade Ajani Ofunniyin, an adjunct C of C professor and founder of The Gullah Society, coordinated the free DNA testing for locals willing to participate in the study.
Oduwole, 21, was born in New York City and grew up in Myrtle Beach with his parents who are Nigerian immigrants. Connecting the dots between Africa and America for himself and for other people is a personal mission, he said.
“My ancestors could have been these bones right in front of me,” he said.
When Grimmage learned of the opportunity to take a free DNA test and contribute to the research, he jumped at the chance. The 37-year-old native of Pawleys Island knows his mother’s family has roots in the Grand Strand but other than that he doesn’t know much. He rejects invitations to “Grimmage family reunions” from strangers since he doesn’t know if they are actually related.
“A people who know their true lineage is a powerful people,” he said.
Ashley Robertson, 34, works with Grimmage at the College of Charleston. Her father, who is of African descent, has been able to trace their Upstate roots back to Charleston. But information is limited. Like Grimmage, Robertson jumped at the opportunity to finally have answers about her lineage.
“As I grow older and establish myself as a citizen of Charleston, a citizen of South Carolina and of America more generally, it’s really important for me to identify who I am,” she said.
Without the DNA test, it’s difficult for African-Americans to trace their genealogy. During slavery, South Carolina’s Negro Act established that a marriage between a free person and a slave was not recognized, and any child of that relationship could not inherit property from their free parent. The law also dictated that all babies born to enslaved black women, regardless of the race, class or slave status of the father, were born into slavery.
In many cases, the legal documents commonly used in genealogical research — birth certificates, marriage licenses, property records and wills — do not exist for African-Americans. Americans with European ancestry, however, can often rely on a paper trail to trace their roots.
“For the ones who did have (records), that stuff was destroyed,” Grimmage said. “I think the country has done a good job erasing the stuff.”
Oduwole will soon finish analyzing the first DNA set of 30 people and then he’ll begin analyzing the next set of 30. After that, he’ll analyze the final 20. His research will conclude by comparing the DNA of the living and the dead in an attempt to figure out who, if anybody, is related.
The National Geographic Society recently took note of Oduwole’s research and named him a National Geographic Explorer, a prestigious distinction that comes with a $7,530 research grant.
Charleston Apologizes for City’s Role in Slave Trade
By Melissa Gomez, New York Times
June 19, 2018
Charleston, the South Carolina port city where about 40 percent of enslaved Africans who were brought to North America landed after being taken from their homelands, has become the latest city to apologize for its role in the slave trade.
In an emotional and at times heated meeting that drew a standing-room-only crowd, the Charleston City Council on Tuesday night approved a two-page resolution in City Hall — a structure built by slaves — that its supporters saw as a step toward racial healing.
The resolution, which was approved by voice vote and was met with loud cheers, recognized that the city had flourished at the cost of those enslaved and apologized on behalf of the city for its role in the trade. It also acknowledged wrongs committed against African-Americans by slavery and Jim Crow laws.
The resolution pledges city officials will work with businesses and organizations to strive for racial equality, and suggests the creation of an office of racial conciliation to help the process of racial healing.
But some people who spoke during a public comment period and council members who debated the resolution for nearly two hours questioned whether it went far enough to tackle systemic issues, like affordable housing, economic development and criminal justice matters facing the city’s African-Americans.
Mayor John Tecklenburg, who supported the measure, spoke of how “enamored and intertwined” the city had been with slavery. “Do we have a reason to be sorry, to apologize?’’ he said, his voice unsteady. “We do.”
On 20 – 21 April 2018, Gullah Society Director of Research and Interpretation, Joanna Gilmore, attended a two-day conference at the Manchester Center for Public History and Heritage (MCPHH), at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK.
By Joanna Gilmore
Since its inception, in 2012, the Gullah Society has focused on preserving African-descendant burial grounds as a testimony to the previously ‘forgotten’ enslaved Africans and their free African descendants that built, lived and worked in Charleston and the Lowcountry. For Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, the gravestones are monuments to our ancestors and should be accessible for families and people researching their family histories.
In Fall 2017, Gullah Society began working with the City of Charleston, to reinter (rebury) the thirty-six African and African-descendant individuals that were uncovered during renovations to the Gaillard Center in 2013. As part of the reinterment process Gullah Society staff and City representatives agreed that the individuals should be reburied as close to their original location as possible, along with any artifacts associated with each burial. Additionally, the Gullah Society would work with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania to apply for a National Geographic Society grant to support DNA research to learn more about the ancestry of the 36 individuals buried near Anson Street. Through community and school engagement programs, combined with the information gained from the DNA research, we will develop a ceremony and memorial at the reinterment site.
As a result of our ongoing research on the Anson Street burial ground project and in preparing the ‘WOKE: Rattling Bones, Conversations, Holy Rites and Sacred Places’ exhibition at the City Gallery, we have become increasingly aware of the potential that this site has to address the balance of memorials in Charleston. Our conversations aligned closely with the conference theme, at the newly launched MCPHH, which focused on “MOVING MONUMENTS: HISTORY, MEMORY AND THE POLITICS OF PUBLIC SCULPTURE” and provided an opportunity for us to disseminate our current work internationally.
According to the conference organizers, “ongoing events in the United States concerning the removal of Confederate soldier-statues, together with similar discussions here in the UK linked to various memorials and monuments from the age of Empire make clear that despite living in an era of increasingly ‘virtual memory’, public sculpture continues to draw – and provoke – engaged political debate.”
On the first day of the conference panels covered ‘Race, Slavery and the Politics of Memory’ and ‘Race, Politics and Power: Contesting Memory in the United States’ and ‘Marginalization, Reconciliation and Civic Identity’. Both Emily Gee, with Historic England, and Sophie Campbell, at the University of Nottingham, prompted important discussion about the absence of black abolitionists in the commemorative landscape, who controls monument building and the value of using monuments for teaching contested histories, providing a counterpoint, and the value of removing monuments altogether. Campbell also described how the narratives projected on monuments are malleable and open to appropriation. While there is potential to shift the narratives surrounding a monument, this also depends upon the subject of the monument itself. For example, a monument such as John C. Calhoun in Marion Square, is perhaps less malleable because of the degree to which he is venerated as a Statesman, despite his vehement support of slavery.
On the second day of the conference I gave my presentation, “Monumental Decisions: Community Engagement, Identity and Memory”, which focused on the Anson street burial ground project. I began by discussing the history of slavery and memory in Charleston, to provide context for our current work. Exploring the history of memory, memorialization and the interpretation of the African and African descendant experiences in the City over the past 300 years provides a broader context for understanding where we are today and how we got here. Later I described the memorial landscape in Charleston and our plan for incorporating DNA research and community engagement into the design of the memorial near the Gaillard Center.
So far we have held four community talks and have curated the WOKE exhibition at the City Gallery to facilitate our community conversations. Walter Hood, architect for the International African American Museum memorial, has suggested that instead of asking what sort of monument people want to see, there is more likelihood for consensus if communities are asked how they would like to feel when they see the monument. This is what we have focused on at our community conversations, feedback from the community will be used by monument designers to create conceptual design. In the Fall, College of Charleston students in Dr. Nathaniel Walker’s Architecture of Memory class, will use results of the ongoing research and feedback provided by the community to propose memorial designs. These will be presented at a public forum for further community engagement.
The reinterment of the 36 African individuals presents a rare occasion for Charleston citizens to engage with their African heritage at the community level, as well as an opportunity to answer important questions regarding ancestry and identity and to add new voices to the Charleston’s memorial landscape.
City Gallery's WOKE is an eye-opening exploration of the city's African-American burial grounds
Leonard Freed, a Brooklyn born photographer, is best known for his photos of Jewish communities throughout the world and for his depictions of the Civil Rights Movement. But two different kinds of photographs of Freed's stand out to Linda Dennis, program manager for A Backpack Journalist, an organization that provides journalism experiences for students across the Lowcountry.
"They tell the story of an African-American Gullah funeral on Johns Island," says Dennis of Freed's images, which she acquired from Freed's wife, Brigitte. "They tell the story of the Christmas Eve Gullah tradition that they do at a church and they sing and clap with or without music and they wait for the birth of Christ at midnight."
Freed's photos are part of WOKE: Rattling Bones, Conversations, Sacred Rites and Holy Places. The new exhibition at City Gallery looks to "serve as a learning laboratory to share information and documentation about newly recognized and at-risk cultural heritage sites."
Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, executive director of the Gullah Society and project director of the Gullah Society Sacred Burial Ground Project, curated WOKE with the help of Dennis and A Backpack Journalist.
The at-risk cultural heritage sites referenced in the exhibit's description include the Zion Olivett African Burial Ground on Monrovia Street and the New First Missionary Baptist Church Burial Grounds at Edisto Island. But the event that put black burial grounds in the forefront of Charleston — at least through media coverage — was the 2013 unearthing of 36 sets of bones from African Americans buried in the mid to late 1700s. Those bones were discovered near Anson Street during renovations to the Gaillard Center.
"The reinterment of the bones at the Gaillard Center is a critical representation of the displacement of African burial sites," Ofunniyin says. "It's also indicative of the displacement of people generally. That displacement results from development that doesn't take into consideration communities of people that have been in these places that have been gentrified for centuries."
In the wake of discovering the built-over graves, Ofunniyin began the Anson Street Burial Project — an initiative to engage community stakeholders and the city in coming up with ways that the remains can be humanized and interred once again.
Currently the remains of those bodies found buried near Anson Street are resting in a city facility while the discussions about the burial and a proper memorial at the Anson Street site are ongoing.
WOKE is meant to provoke people's thoughts about the individuals who were discovered in the ground near Anson Street: who were these people, how did they come to be buried there, and what are their stories? Methods of answering these questions are being worked out by the Anson Street Burial project's partners: DNA will determine what part of Africa those remains might have come from; Howard University will examine the genetic material to see if any diseases were present; Ofunniyin has even partnered with National Geographic to see if any living relatives of the dead can be found.
"The exhibit and the process is intended to wake up the community," Ofunniyin says, "to not only think about burial grounds but to think about a lot of things, including gentrification, how to empower [communities], how to deal with the effects of gentrification. ... People don't have places to live because they can't afford to live here anymore."
Those lessons still need to be taught in Ofunniyin's mind. The disrespect of black burial grounds continues. It's not just the dead that development is overlooking — it's the living as well.
"Awareness has not been created yet," Ofunniyin says. "Developers are single mindedly committed to developing and getting a check. Part of this process is not to stop development, because it's going to occur, but to create a type of development that's more sensitive to the needs of communities that are being developed and include the concerns of those people that are being displaced."
If WOKE could accomplish just one task, for Ofunniyin it'd be this — "Being woke would mean that you would be concerned with your fellow man."
Gullah Society work featured in Charleston Magazine...
Reflections on the "Recovering the Bones: African American Material Religion and Religious Memory" conference at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
By Ade Ofunniyin
On October 27th and 28th my colleague, Joanna Gilmore, and I attended a two-day conference, titled Recovering the Bones: African American Material Religion and Religious Memory. The conference was sponsored by the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life (CSAARL) at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall, in Washington, DC. The Center “seeks to examine and catalog the rich diversity of the African American religious experience and the various expressions of faith, belief, and spirituality among African American people through collections, research, publications, and community engagement.” The conference was convened in the Oprah Winfrey Theater.
The conference presenters included distinguished scholars, such as, Charles H. Long, University of California at Santa Barbara, Yvonne Chireau, Swarthmore College, Whitney Battle-Baptiste, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Qiana, J Whitted, University of South Carolina, Ashton T Crawley, University of Virginia, Sylviane Diouf, Lapidis Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery, New York Public Library, Dianne M Stewart, Emory University. Michael L Blakey, College of William and Mary, Nimi Wariboko, Boston University, Melvin L Butler, University of Miami, David Douglas Daniels lll, McCormick Theological Seminary, Joyce Marie Jackson, Louisiana State University, Erica Moiah James, University of Miami. The program concluded with a live performance by the Campbell Brothers. The Campbell Brothers presented “a compelling, rich variety of material from the African American Holiness Pentecostal repertoire on the steel and electric guitars.”
The conference was informative and exciting, powerful and empowering. It was wonderful to be seated in the Oprah Winfrey Theater with so many distinguished scholars of African descent from different regions of the African diaspora. An anticipated benefit for participating in the conference was being in the museum and taking time to view exhibits.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture dispels a popular myth that declared that African American people do not appreciate history and attending museums. The NMAAHC demonstrates clearly that what matters to black museum-goers is content, presentation, relevance and intention. The museum provides the needed space for people, particularly African descended people, to remember, reflect, and celebrate the richness of African culture and heritage. At last, the world can see on display, the magnanimity and triumph of African people and their descendants in the United States of America; the exhibits, and the historical context provided, tell the compelling story of the enslavement of African peoples and their long arduous journey to the present. The stories are told through the lens of an African/African American interpreter; they are our stories.
Since it’s opening, the museum has been visited by overflowing crowds. It was no different on the days that I was at the conference. The long lines to enter an exhibition area included elderly people in wheelchairs, children, and families. Most of the attendees that I observed were black; there were many shades of blackness and several whites in all of the exhibit spaces. In some spaces it was almost impossible to move about. I am certain that I will make several trips back to the NMAAHC for a more comprehensive viewing of what the museum has to offer.
Gullah Society awarded grant from the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina to preserve sacred burial grounds
Gullah Society was awarded a $2,500.00 grant to purchase the equipment necessary for the survey and documentation of burial grounds. This equipment includes; a drone (for aerial photography), shovels, line levels, measuring tape, sifting screens, brooms, buckets, a wheelbarrow, stakes, archival bags and conservation materials.
Over the past year we have continued to work with the New First Missionary Baptist Church on Edisto Island in documenting their burial ground. We have provided the Church with a report, an inventory of burials, and map that allows friends and relatives to locate the burials of loved ones. We have also forged partnerships with Union Baptist Church, New Life in Christ Baptist Church, Zion Olivet Presbyterian Church, the City of Charleston, Dixie King Street Investors LLC (owners of the property across the street from the Monrovia Street cemeteries listed above), and Boomtown (which is located on this property).
Through these partnerships we have created a plan to assist and train community volunteers in the clearing of vegetation around these sensitive sites, and in recording, documenting, repairing and conserving grave markers. We will also provide these Churches with an inventory of burials, with additional genealogical research, so that families are now able to find and access the burials of relatives.
To further our outreach in communities we used funds provided by the Coastal Community Foundation for promotional materials, such as the website, business cards, a PO Box and posters.
Staff archaeologists, Jeremy C. Miller and Taryn P. Ricciardelli, presented these posters at the 7th annual Archaeological Conference for the South Carolina Lowcountry, held at the College of Charleston, April 8th 2017. These posters detailed our work at the New First Methodist Baptist Church Cemetery and for the DeReef Park history harvest project. For this project, we worked with the City of Charleston, to help record community history through interviews and the collection of photographs and ephemera. The purchase of the digital voice recorder will be used to collect oral histories from communities and in recording stories about relatives buried at the cemeteries that we document.
The posters were also used at a public screening of ‘The New York African Burial Ground’ documentary, held at the Charleston County Library on Calhoun Street on May 22 and June 2, 2017. The Gullah Society hosted this educational screening of the 2009 documentary about the 18th century African burial ground discovered in New York City in 199. The purpose of this event was to provide an opportunity for conversation about the future commemoration of the African graves discovered at Charleston Gaillard Center in 2013, including a possible location for the reinterment of the thirty seven individuals once buried at the site. We are now working with the City of Charleston to ensure that an appropriate memorial and ceremony is planned for the reinterment.
Discovering the dead: Gullah Society takes on preservation of black burial grounds in Charleston
Plunge a shovel in the Charleston earth and you are likely to dig up history. It’s there in layers, accumulated over the centuries.
Among the artifacts one might encounter are the broken pieces of old buildings, cannon balls and other ordnances — and the bones of our predecessors. Charleston’s lost cemeteries and burial grounds are numerous, though many of them have been destroyed or forgotten. And some of this sacred ground remains undiscovered by the living.
When, in early 2013, workers were preparing the foundation of the new Gaillard Center, they uncovered the remains of 36 Africans as well as bone fragments of a few others. The construction work stopped temporarily as archaeologists, project leaders, city officials and others scrutinized the site. The remains were carefully boxed and removed for study then placed in a secure room. There they have remained for four and a half years.
The city now is working out a plan to reinter these remains just 100 feet or so from where they were found. It’s a complicated project involving lawyers, archaeologists, community leaders and historic preservationists.
The Gaillard site is the latest of many old black burial grounds that have been discovered in Charleston. Many of the cemeteries that survive are ill-maintained and in danger of being lost. Many more have been destroyed or covered over during a century or more of urban expansion and real estate development.
In the 1700s and 1800s, the Charleston peninsula included large stretches of undeveloped land populated by many small farmers. The dead not laid to rest in churchyards often were buried in small, private cemeteries. The poor were unceremoniously placed in municipal graveyards on the west side of the peninsula. Recordkeeping has not always been rigorous. Much has been lost, sometimes due to neglect, sometimes because of deliberate efforts to override this heritage with profitable development projects.
“Up until World War II, it was not uncommon for churches and city officials to say, ‘This burial ground is full so we’re going to build on top of it,’ ” said Nic Butler, a historian at the Charleston County Public Library. “The idea that burial grounds will remain forever free of development was limited to the elite. Churches put up walls around burial grounds. But other churches with more modest pocketbooks, in the past have sold burial grounds, abandoned burial grounds and moved somewhere else.”
City officials often were complicit in the destruction of such sites, preferring development over preservation, he said.
“Things that were done within living memory are thought to be bad, and yet they’re still done,” Butler said. “The discovery of the burial ground (during) the Gaillard construction several years ago was not an isolated event and not an example of some egregious cover-up. We have reached a point in our society where we will no longer tolerate such things. The idea that ... some people are more important than others is not accepted today.”
'In such bad shape' Ade Ofunniyin respectfully disputes that assertion. Ofunniyin has collaborated with Butler to raise awareness of the threat to black burial grounds posed by development and gentrification. He worries that a long history of disregard for black archaeological sites could continue unless the community takes matters into its own hands and recruits allies among city planners and those concerned with historic preservation. Too many black burial grounds have been lost already, he said. Too many more are in awful states of disrepair.
Ofunniyin has been consulting with civic leaders on cemetery renovations, and on the Gaillard reinterment project, since 2012. Ofunniyin, grandson of master blacksmith Philip Simmons and an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston, recently started the Gullah Society in an effort to help formalize the protection and preservation of black burial grounds in the city.
He became devoted to this effort a few years ago when searching for graves on Daniel Island, where several of his ancestors were laid to rest. He found what he was looking for near a tennis court. “The cemetery was in such bad shape,” Ofunniyin said. “I was getting ready to leave when I heard the voice of William Simmons saying, 'You can’t leave; look what’s in front of you.'”
In front of him were sunken graves, broken stones, fallen trees, overgrown flora.
“We talk a lot about our ancestors and respecting our heritage, but it’s all so abstract,” Ofunniyin mused. To properly respect our ancestors means dirt under the fingernails, money earmarked for preservation projects, history taught to students, coordination with municipal leaders and nonprofits, he said. Respecting heritage requires action.
So Ofunniyin set up the Gullah Society and secured two $5,000 grants from the Daniel Island Company to restore the Grove Cemetery and work on plans to save three others.
The organization operates on a shoestring budget. Ofunniyin is at the helm; Joanna Gilmore, who teaches in the College of Charleston's anthropology department, conducts some research. Ofunniyin said he hopes the Gullah Society can become the keeper of African and African-American burial grounds, especially as the last of the old burial societies fades away.
How the dead are lost
Michael Trinkley, director of the Chicora Foundation in Columbia and an archaeologist and preservationist, has done research on Charleston burial grounds, publishing in 2010 “The Silence of the Dead: Giving Charleston Cemeteries a Voice.”
He scoured historical documents, maps and newspapers to identify about 100 cemetery locations and, in some cases, individual graves, and compare them with the current topography of the city, he said.
Some of these sites were destroyed, some disappeared under parking lots and office buildings, and others remained accessible, though often only a smattering of bone fragments were found.
“A lot of these losses were in fact a result of the city of Charleston’s governance,” Trinkley said. “While cemeteries were not taxed (generally), all properties were taxed for road and sidewalk improvements. So if you didn’t pay taxes, your property would be taken by the city and sold.” And since it could be difficult for black burial societies to afford such taxes, and even unclear just who was responsible for some of the black cemeteries, those taxes often were not paid, he said.
This went on into the middle of the 20th century, and it wasn’t exclusive to Charleston, Trinkley said. “We have a (1939) newspaper account of a church and cemetery to be sold in Orangeburg County for past-due taxes.”
Some white cemeteries also suffered damage and destruction, Trinkley said. But black burial grounds have been most at risk. “Black cemeteries are much more likely to be moved and studied than white cemeteries, … often because of where black cemeteries happen to be located,” he said.
Now there are few left. But because so many sites never were well documented or marked, it’s inevitable that more burial grounds will be discovered as the city continues to change and grow, Trinkley said. And that obligates the community to take special care, to have archaeologists at the ready and preservationists standing by.
Archaeologists were standing by when, in the spring, a construction team found two graves and some disassociated human remains at Harmon Field while working on a stormwater project. City officials anticipated finding bones at the site because of past excavations nearby, according to Susan Herdina, the city’s attorney involved in this and other burial ground concerns, including the Gaillard project.
“Where we have some history and a good sense there could be remains, we are prepared for that,” she said.
The Harmon Field remains were removed following a process defined by state law that involves the coroner and a funeral director, Herdina said. Intact bones and fragments were secured and now await reburial at the site or nearby.
The Gaillard discovery prompted involvement of a history commission whose members are now considering how best to memorialize the dead. Archaeologist Eric Poplin and city officials are working together to determine whether the corner of Anson and George streets can accommodate 37 small boxes without disturbing other remains (none have been found so far) or relocating infrastructure, Herdina said. If all goes well, the remains could be back in the ground before the end of the year, she said.
“This is a piece of our history that’s really interesting to historians, archaeologists” and others, Herdina said. “Taking a deliberative approach that touches all bases is definitely the right way to go.”
Poplin, senior archaeologist and vice president of Brockington Cultural Resources Consulting, was digging at the Gaillard site recently to determine whether anything would prevent reburial there. He used remote sensing radar to see beneath the dirt, discovering “a lot of disturbance” in the form of buried building materials, but so far nothing more.
The goal is to excavate a 10-by-5-foot space, 5 feet deep, in which to place the 37 containers of remains, he said. After they were discovered, the bones were examined forensically, subjected to strontium and oxygen isotype testing. The former helps determine where someone was born; the latter provides data related to where someone lived and died.
Strontium is absorbed in bones and teeth, Poplin explained. Archaeologists can match remains with specific regions of the world, thereby identifying a person’s origins.
This testing made it clear that the adults discovered at the Gaillard site were from a variety of places up and down the western side of Africa. The six children found had been born in South Carolina.
The team opted not to do DNA testing since it is generally more destructive, requiring larger bone samples, and since it requires a counter sample to which the results can be compared. Though he didn’t rule out such testing if a consensus emerges in favor of it, Poplin said.
The burial ground at the Gaillard dates to about 1780, give or take a decade, just before development of Anson Street took off, he said. There was no crowding; everyone was oriented in the same direction, equally spaced. That likely means their undertakers were under no pressure to bury them quickly, Poplin said.
Ofunniyin is pleased with how the project is being managed and hopeful that it will encourage city officials and members of the community to become more involved in the preservation of these burial grounds.
Not long ago, he visited a black cemetery off Cunnington Avenue where he saw among the ill-maintained graves a few large monuments to the dead, signifying that someone important lay beneath the earth there.
“But who were they?” Ofunniyin asked. Clearly they played an important role in their communities. Certainly they accomplished something significant in their lives and were held in esteem by family and friends. “These are the stories that are missing, these are the stories our children need to know.”
So saving burial grounds is much more than an academic exercise in historic preservation, he said. It’s a chance to keep history alive, to pass it down to new generations, to right wrongs.
“This is a good opportunity for the city to do some redemptive work, to make up for their complicity over the centuries,” he said.
Contact Adam Parker at email@example.com.
Gullah Society work featured on the Center for Family History at the International African American Museum (IAAM) website
Cemetery Preservation: A Growing Concern
All cemeteries lose things over time as natural elements take their toll – headstones may deteriorate due to growth of algae, lichen or fungus, headstone inscriptions may wear down and become less readable, growth of trees and underbrush may cause gravestones to be uprooted, broken or displaced.
Entire cemeteries may become endangered due to neglect and lack of maintenance. African American cemeteries are particularly susceptible to endangerment from neglect because many of these sacred places have historically been undervalued, unrecognized and unpreserved.
One nonprofit organization based in Charleston, South Carolina seeks to protect and preserve the sacred burial grounds of African and African American ancestors.
The Gullah Society
Since 2013, the Gullah Society, a nonprofit organization based in Charleston, South Carolina, has worked to document burial grounds at a number of locations in Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry. At each site, Gullah Society’s efforts focus on assessing, mapping, documenting and stabilizing burials and their environment.
The society also works with communities and Church groups to assist in their preservation, management and maintenance of burial grounds, and in the collection of oral histories and documents related to those buried there.
The Gullah Society seeks to:
A Word From Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, Founder of the Gullah Society
How we remember our ancestors says a lot about our humanity. When we consider that an ancestor is someone from whom you descended, your forerunner, a human being that preceded you, we realize that ancestors are personal and familial. That person might have been a parent or grandparent; they could have been an aunt or uncle. The link includes recent ancestors and those who extend deep into the past; it spans countless generations, multiple continents, and intersects ethnicities. There are ancient ancestors, and in the case of so many of us, those that we call collective ancestors.
Annually on the second Saturday in the month of June groups of people in different global locales come together to honor those ancestors that perished in the Middle Passage. We don’t know their identities or which specific ancestral group they came from; we honor them as collective ancestors.
In my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina we Gullah Geechee people come together at Sullivan Island and Fort Moultrie to make offerings of libation, fruits, flowers, praise, and dance to the spirits of our collective forebears. We have celebrated this occasion for nearly twenty-five years. The crowd changes and have over the years grown to include more young people.
The affair lasts approximately three hours. It has always been emotional and jubilant; like most experiences when African people come together with drums, voice and worship. When the event ends, we depart in our separate cars having accomplished not more than a good feeling; for some it is a healing. Most of us leave feeling that we have given the ancestors their due; that we have in fact paid homage to those who suffered and endured the horrendous Middle Passage.
For several years now, I have joined my Charleston community in this ritual. On occasions, I have been invited to pour the libations and lead the activities. I always felt joy and satisfaction in what we were doing for our collective ancestors; like so many others, I continue to look forward to this annual event. But through my work with Gullah Society’s Sacred Burial Grounds project, I have come to know that there is so much more that must be done for our ancestors.
Since 2013, I have visited several dozen burial grounds where the remains of our ancestors have been laid to rest (some might have been on the ship that transported those collective ancestors; some may be descendants). Many of the graves have markers and headstones that identify the interred; a good number of them have no markers; many of the graves have collapsed, and some are at sites that are not accessible to families or the community, due to overgrown shrubbery, bushes, fallen trees, debris, and trash. Many ancestral sacred burial grounds have become wastelands for rubbish and junk.
Internet access and increased publicity has spawned a great interest in genealogy and family histories. Family members are finding relatives and are forging remarkable relationships. Sometimes these discoveries lead to a burial ground. I recently learned of a young woman who followed the trail to a cemetery where her ancestors were buried. After a long search and discovery, she was unable to visit the grave because of overgrowth and fallen trees. She hired someone to help her work her way into the site, but was still unable to find her loved ones; this is not uncommon.
In some instances, burial grounds cannot be found because they no longer exist. Large numbers of burial grounds and cemeteries have been displaced by development or in some case the creation of our massive interstate highway system. Some are buried deep beneath private homes, public buildings, and parking lots. Many of the older burial grounds are located on plantations or on developments that once served as a plantation. Gullah Society has also found graveyards that were once associated with churches that no longer exist or that was sold to a new group of parishioners, who have no knowledge of the burial site; they likely have ho records of who is buried at the site.
Locating, reclaiming, and mapping sacred burial grounds is one of the many tasks that Gullah Society engages in to reconnect families and bring awareness to the public about the richness of Gullah Geechee heritage and traditions. We invite you to join us in this work. If you are aware of a burial site that looks abandoned, please contact us. You can also organize volunteers and family members to cleanup and maintain the burial grounds.
More recently, municipalities, sensitive homeowners and developers are responding positively to requests from family members for access to sacred burial grounds. Get involved adopt a burial ground! Make paying homage to our ancestors an activity that we participate in daily. Let us actively remember those who sacrificed so much for so long, on our behalf, to improve the qualities of our lives. Let us do for our ancestors what we hope others will do for us, when it is our turn to be someone’s beloved ancestor.
For more information about the International African American Museum and the Center for Family History click the link below:
Community & History News
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