Stories about the Anson Street Ancestors and the Legacy of Dr. O
BY THE ANSON STREET AFRICAN BURIAL GROUND PROJECT TEAM
Raquel Fleskes, Joanna Gilmore, Grant Mishoe, La'Sheia Oubré and Theodore Schurr
The Anson Street Ancestors were discovered during renovations of the Galliard Center in 2013. The late Dr. Ade Ofunniyin made it his mission to ensure that the voices of the Ancestors would be heard, and their legacy - and that of all African descended people – would be more fully acknowledged in Charleston. He also wanted the Anson Street Ancestors to be laid to rest on the grounds of their original burial, which was fulfilled in May 2019 during the Reinterment & Celebration of Life Ceremony (Figures 1 and 2).
Figure 1. Reinterment Ceremony (Photo by Quadre Stuckey)
Figure 2. Photo of the Gullah Society, Inc., Queen Quet of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, and Charleston community members in the after celebration of the Reinternment Ceremony at
St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church (Charleston, South Carolina).
For this mission, Dr. O brought together a team of researchers for the Gullah Society, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to the stewardship of African descended burial grounds and Gullah-Geechee cultural traditions, to undertake studies that would tell the stories of the Anson Street Ancestors. The team members included Joanna Gilmore (archaeologist), Grant Mishoe (genealogist and historical researcher), La’Sheia Oubré (education and outreach coordinator), Raquel Fleskes and Theodore Schurr (anthropological geneticists), Eric Poplin (archaeologist), Suzanne Abel and Wolf Bueschgen (osteologists), Chelsea Juarez (bioarchaeologist), and Nic Butler (historian).
The stories of the Ancestors were generated by analyzing many aspects of their lives. Team members studied the bones, DNAs and chemical signatures of the Ancestors remains, as well as site where they buried and the objects left with them in their graves. Information from these studies indicated where the Anson Street Ancestors came from, how long they had lived in Charleston, whether they were buried with brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, and what their lives were like in late 18th century Charleston. The completion of this research also served as an important moment of reckoning for Charleston to help it acknowledge and understand its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The first of these stories of the Anson Street Ancestors was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology on October 6, 2020 (Figure 3). In the rest of this blog post, we will explain the main study findings. However, you can download the publication, “Ancestry, health, and lived experiences of enslaved Africans in 18th century Charleston: An osteobiographical analysis”, for yourself here or view it online here. The publication of this scientific manuscript has shared the stories of the Ancestors with people across the globe. You can also watch a video about these findings at the end of this blog post.
Figure 3. The first article published on analysis of the Anson Street Ancestors.
The day after the publication was released, the Ancestors called Dr. O to the next life. He was extremely proud of the article, and for the future work of the Anson Street African Burial Ground Project. The project team members are dedicated to continuing his legacy by finishing this important research into the lives of 18th century persons of African descent.
The mission of Dr. O, the Gullah Society, Inc., and the Anson Street African Burial Ground Project is to broaden public understanding of the ancestry and history of the Charleston African American community over several centuries of time. This scientific publication is the first of several to be written about the stories of the Anson Street Ancestors. We will continue this mission by making research presentations online, writing blog posts, and, when possible, make in-person presentations about our work to keep you informed about the progress of the research. We will continue to work together with the community to tell the stories of the Anson Street Ancestors, as Dr. O would have wanted.
Dr. Eric Poplin and his team from Brockington and Associates, Inc. identified excavated 37 burials at the Galliard site. They took detailed notes on the positions of the burials, and catalogued artifacts that they discovered in the graves. They found that 36 of the 37 burials contained human remains, with the other containing animal remains (Figure 4). After documenting the burials, they carefully excavated and removed the Anson Street Ancestors to a secure location where they would rest until their reinternment.
Through their excavation work, they learned that the burials had been made in roughly four equally spaced rows (Figure 4). They identified evidence of clothing and grave goods, including buttons, ceramics, beads, and coins (Figure 5). They also recovered evidence of coffin nails and brass pins which indicated that some individuals were buried in coffins or wrapped in burial shrouds. This evidence demonstrated that the Anson Street Ancestors were buried over a period of years, and with care and love by a community.
Figure 4. Image of the Anson Street Burial Ground site map. Grey boxes indicate the positions of the graves. Map produced by Brockington and Associates, Inc.
Figure 5. Photograph of a glass bead found around the head of Omo, an infant. This would have likely been a necklace or a hair bead placed by someone who cared for the child. Photo provided by Eric Poplin.
The archaeological work also helped us to understand when in time these individuals were buried. One of the children, Welela, was buried with two coins placed over her eyes. The engravings on one of these coins was well enough preserved that archaeologists identified it as a George III coin that was minted in A.D. 1773 (Figure 6). These coins, along with the types of ceramic found at the site and documents about the ownership of the land, allowed us to estimate the period between A.D. 1760 to 1790 as the active period of interment at the Anson Street burial ground.
Figure 6: Photograph of the George III copper halfpenny, found on the eyes of Welela. If you look close enough at the bottom of the coin, you can see the etching ‘1773’. Photo provided by Eric Poplin.
Drs. Suzanne Abel and Wolf Bueschgen, from the College of Charleston and the Charleston’s Coroner’s Office, analyzed the bones and teeth of the Anson Street Ancestors. The bones provided very valuable clues about their age, biological sex, and experiences in life. These bones were very fragmented due to poor preservation in the local soils, but the two osteologists identified children, women, and men buried at the site. When the teeth were analyzed, they found that these individuals ranged in age from months old to over 40 years old. The majority were adults, but many children were also present.
They also looked for evidence of lived experience on the bones. Sometimes the activities that occurred in life can leave marks on the bone that can be seen after death. For instance, if you break a bone, the fracture marks will be left behind. At the Anson Street African Burial Ground, the osteologists looked for fracture marks on the bone to determine if there was any evidence of physical trauma in the remains of the Ancestors. They found some individuals had evidence of healed fractures in their fingers, but no one had evidence of trauma in connection with the cause of death.
In addition, Drs. Abel and Bueschgen found that the bones were robust, meaning they had large muscle attachment sites. This happens when the muscles are used a lot and grow larger, which also makes the attaching bone grow, as well. For the Anson Street Ancestors, the robustness of their bones suggested that they did a lot of physical labor in their lifetimes. Some individuals, such as Fumu – an older adult male – showed evidence of a rotator cuff injury that was probably a result of hard labor.
The teeth of the Anson Street Ancestors were also examined. Most individuals had very poor teeth. Almost 50% of the Ancestors had evidence of at least one cavity in their mouth, or a larger abscess. Some individuals were also missing teeth. This pattern of tooth loss and damage suggested that their diet was rich in carbohydrates and starches, and that dental care for the Ancestors was very poor.
Raquel Fleskes and Dr. Theodore Schurr collected samples from the teeth and the skull, which are both places that contain high amounts preserved DNA. The DNA samples were taken to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville with Dr. Graciela Cabana to be analyzed in an Ancient DNA laboratory by Ms. Fleskes. This laboratory is designed to reduce DNA contamination from outside sources, and scientists needed to wear full personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times (Figure 7). This way, we know that the DNA of the ancestors we are extracting is authentic. In total, they obtained usable DNA from 31 of the 36 Ancestors.
Figure 7. Dr. O and Dr. Theodore Schurr visiting the Ancient DNA Laboratory at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. They are fully covered with Personal Protective Equipment to make sure they don’t contaminate the DNA samples with their DNA, just like what was done during the DNA analysis of the Anson Street Ancestors. Photo by Raquel Fleskes.
As a first step for understanding the ancestry of the Ancestors, we examined the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of each individual. This small part of your genomic DNA reveals your maternal ancestry, because the mtDNA is passed directly from mother to daughter each generation (Figure 8). We can analyze the small mutations in the mtDNA, and determine to which maternal lineage, or ‘haplogroup,” it belongs. These haplogroups can be used to trace maternal ancestry by searching for where else in the world human populations possess these lineages, as well as maternal biological kinship by comparing the haplogroups present among the Ancestors from the burial ground.
Figure 8. Diagram showing the inheritance patterns of mitochondrial DNA vs. nuclear (whole genome) DNA. Our mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from our direct maternal ancestor.
We found that 30 of the 31 of these haplogroups are currently found in African populations. They are present in west, central, south, and even north Africa (Figure 9). These maternal lineages represent an incredible range of African mtDNA diversity. The Anson Street Ancestors’ haplogroups are also found in other African individuals living during the same period of time, including those living in the liberated colony of St. Helena’s in South Africa, in the Caribbean, and in New York state. This evidence helps us to understand the extent of diversity of African individuals who were enslaved and forcibly brought to North America during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Figure 9. Locations where individuals having the same mtDNA haplogroups as those seen in the Anson Street Ancestors live in Africa. Image created by Raquel Fleskes.
We also identified two individuals who shared the same exact mtDNA, suggesting that they were maternally related. These two individuals – Welela, a child, and Isi, an adult - were buried directly next to each other in the burial ground. In addition, the child was buried with the coins placed over her eyes. This is the first description of maternal relatedness in an historic African burial ground. The overall lack of maternal kinship at the site, despite the number of women and children buried at the Anson Street Burial Ground, paints a stark picture of the way that slavery separated members of family from each other. Yet, we do know that, while not directly buried with maternal kinfolk, these individuals were buried with love and care by a defined community who remembered them after they passed.
Dr. Chelsey Juarez from California State University conducted strontium isotopic analysis of the Anson Street Ancestors. Strontium is an element found in the earth that has different elemental signatures in different areas of the globe. Our bones and teeth absorb this strontium mainly through the ground water that we drink (Figure 10). By determining the strontium signature in the hard tissues, we can look for signatures in other parts of the world that match it, thereby identifying a likely place of residence. Bones and teeth tell us different stories about residence. Our teeth absorb the strontium when they are developing, meaning that it reveals our residence during childhood. Bones remodel (make over) themselves around every 10 years as we grow, meaning that its strontium signature will show us where we spent the last decade of our lives.
Figure 10. Diagram of how strontium becomes absorbed into our bones and teeth, reflecting the local geology. From https://analyteguru.com/if-bones-could-talk-part-1/.
For the Anson Street Ancestors, strontium isotope data can tell us if an individual was born in Africa or in Charleston. In total, we found out that only six individuals were born in Africa (Figure 11). These individuals survived the Middle Passage and lived in Charleston before their passing. Only one of these individuals, Ganda, passed away recently after arriving in Charleston. The rest of the Anson Street Ancestors were born in Charleston or the surrounding area. These findings show that the majority of the Ancestors had been living for at least generations since their own ancestors had been brought to North America.
Figure 11. Binomial distribution of the enamel (left plot) and cortical bone (right plot) strontium (86Sr/87Sr) isotope values. Symbols representing the estimated age and sex are based on osteological profiles. The points that lay outside of the dotted area indicate that they are outside of the Charleston range.
Chart created by Raquel Fleskes.
Main Take Away Points of the Study:
You can also watch Raquel Fleskes (Ph.D. Candidate) and Dr. Theodore Schurr (Professor of Anthropology) from the University of Pennsylvania, talk about these research findings the video below:
This is the first scientific publication about our work with the Anson Street Ancestors. In the future, we will study at the whole genomes of the Ancestors. This will help us understand the genetic ancestry of both their mothers’ and fathers’ sides of the family, hence, the biological relationships with between mothers and sons, or fathers and daughters. It will also help us detect any inter-generational relationships at the burial ground. In addition, we will determine more precisely from where in Africa the Anson Street Ancestors came from through comparing their DNAs with those of contemporary populations living in Africa. We will also do this with Native American populations to see how Indigenous persons were involved with the Anson Street African Burial Ground.
In addition, we observed dental plaque on the teeth of some of the Anson Street Ancestors. We collected small samples of this plaque to be able to study the oral microbiome – all of the bacteria and pathogens that might have been living in the mouths of the Anson Street Ancestors. This study will help us to understand their diet before they passed and determine if they suffered from any dental diseases.
The Anson Street African Burial Ground Project team will keep you updated on the progress of this research. As the Ancestors rest in peace, we will continue to work diligently to reveal who these Anson Street Ancestors were and what their lives were like in 18th century Charleston. All of our discoveries will be published in scientific journals to share these findings with scholars, the general public and you.
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