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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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:
NEWS 2' Ashley Osborne interviews Gullah Society archaeologist, Jeremy Miller about the Monrovia Street burial grounds.
Centuries worth of hidden secrets buried under Lowcountry buildings, parking lots and roads. You probably walk or drive by forgotten graveyards often, but you would never know because either something is built on top or the landscape has taken over the site.
All week News 2’s Ashley Osborne unearths some of Charleston’s forgotten cemeteries. She talked to researcher Grant Mishoe and archaeologist Jeremy Miller about how they uncover where the graves are located and who is buried there.
Grant Mishoe is a retired firefighter who has developed a passion for discovering who is buried in Charleston’s forgotten graves. He finds the information by digging through thousands upon thousands of death records, some dating back to before the Revolutionary War.
“This is just what I enjoy doing,” Mishoe says. “I go through these cemeteries and look, try to track down family members. If I see people that are happy and they’ve seen their family, because my family is near and dear to my heart, my genealogy–that makes me happy.”
Mishoe explains how these burial grounds get lost in time.
“Back in the early days there used to be these friendly societies or burial societies and people would pay into it to get buried, but the problem is, as the trustees get older and pass away, the kids have moved on, out of state, out of town, or don’t care or for whatever reason. Then what happens is this.” He points to the overgrown piece of land where people once buried their loved ones.
Jeremy Miller is an archaeologist with the Gullah Society. They have been working on African burial grounds for the last couple years and recently became a non-profit organization. He and others are in the process of mapping out where people are buried inside these African burial sites.
“Anytime archaeologists or architects even, go into a place, they want plans, a planned drawing or map of the location,” Miller explains. “What we’re trying to provide to clients and to the community is a map, some kind of tangible product or service that they can have where they can see the locations of individuals or their loved ones and be able to find them.”
Miller explains why the Gullah Society is working to restore these places of history.
“Part of visiting these African burial grounds is the experience…We’d like the descendants or the loved ones to be able to visit their loved ones. I think a lot of people take it for granted if any of the individuals even watching this have ancestors that are buried in Magnolia Cemetery, anybody can go and visit their ancestors freely. Here this isn’t as welcoming of an invitation.” He says as he points to an area where tomb stones are tucked back in the woods. “Something needs to be done. I think it’s part of the greater healing process for Charleston” says Miller.
Miller says that the archaeological and scientific community have been pushing for an archaeological ordinance in the City of Charleston for years. They would like an ordinance to require official research done to uncover any traces of history before something is built on top.
“This speaks to some of the greater issues in Charleston right now,” says Miller, “particularly with the development, and so as many of us know, there is a push for an archaeological ordinance here…and with all this development, we’re going to have to push for some kind of regulation because sites like these are getting lost and history is getting lost with it.”
The first burial site they brought us to is across the street from the new fire department on Heriot Street, which is a side road off upper King Street.
There is an undeveloped area about one-quarter acre in size with roughly 20 visible headstones in it. Mishoe says between 900-1300 people are buried there and sprawling out underneath the buildings in the area. Mishoe’s research shows that no one owns the quarter acre. There are no records for it so in theory, it is just a blank space on the map.
Next, they took us one street up to Monrovia Street. Miller explained that there are 4 burial sites in this area across the street from the new Pacific Box and Crate. The head stones start next to an old meeting building and they run through the woods up to I-26. There are headstones resting on the walls of the interstate. Miller says, there is a high probability that there are also graves underneath the I-26.
Third, we went to one of downtown Charleston’s busiest streets. At the corner of Calhoun and Pitt Street, you can see the sanctuary for Bethel United Methodist Church. Underneath the church, multiple houses, parking lots and roads are 5 forgotten cemeteries in this area. Researcher Grant Mishoe thinks there are roughly 2,000 people buried in this collection. The burial site that is underneath is sanctuary is unique for the time period in which the cemetery was in use. Bethel Church buried whites and blacks together. They were buried on separate sides; however, in the same cemetery. This was not common for the time period.
Fourth we take you to Charleston’s Old Jail on Magazine Street in downtown Charleston. This is where the city once imprisoned sea pirates, members of a slave rebellion and Civil War prisoners. The jail is packed with history, but there is even older history buried underneath. This area was the site for the city’s first and second public burial grounds. Burials were very expensive so the city would bury those who could not afford one in their public cemetery. In these places, the city buried paupers, indigents, criminals etc.The first public graveyard follows a crescent shape because officials used to bury people along the outside of the city walls. The second public graveyard takes up a large square block where there are now houses, parking lots, roads and the Old Jail.
Last, we went to a site tucked back in the woods in North Charleston. This little section of woods is off Dorchester Road near the Air Force base. You cannot see it from the road, but there is a graveyard that belonged to a wealthy plantation owner and his family. This family was loyal to the British during the Revolutionary War and had some of their land taken away temporarily because of their controversial allegiance.
Community & History News
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