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.
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