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."
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