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.
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