By Elizabeth Bush
Man on a mission: Dr. Ade Ofunniyin stands at the fence in front of what he calls his family’s sacred, ancestral burial ground on Daniel Island. In preserving and restoring the cemetery, he hopes to share the stories of those laid to rest there while creating a new, welcoming place for quiet reflection and remembrance.
Who is Henry Simmons? That is one of many questions that Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, grandson of the late Master Blacksmith Philip Simmons, hopes to be able to answer through a Cemetery Restoration Project he is conducting at this site. The tombstone marking Henry’s grave sits close to the creek’s edge in the cemetery, located behind the Family Circle Tennis Center Stadium. As of yet, Dr. Ofunniyin has not been able to find Henry in his family tree.
The tombstone for William Simmons, the great-great grandfather of Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, indicates he was born in 1854 and died in 1941, at or about age 87. He and his wife, Sarah, who is buried in a cemetery along Ralston Creek in Daniel Island Park, helped raise their grandson, the late Master Blacksmith Philip Simmons, who was born on the island in 1912. In the book Daniel Island by Michael K. Dahlman and Michael K. Dahlman, Jr., this site is described as the Lesesne African American Cemetery.
As Dr. Ade Ofunniyin made his way towards his family’s burial site along a tidal creek on Daniel Island, the morning sun pushed through tiny openings in the full, leafy branches above, leaving a lacy pattern of light on the untamed brush below. Each beam of sunshine made its presence known in the serene setting, perhaps symbolic of the stories that may soon be illuminated here.
Carefully walking through tall grasses and fallen tree limbs surrounding areas of sunken earth, Dr. Ofunniyin drew closer to the place that links him to his past.
“They believed that being by the water, their souls would return to Africa,” he said, nearing the creek, as the sound of morning rush hour traffic on I-526 hummed in the distance.
Located a few steps from a well traversed recreation path behind the towering Family Circle Tennis Center Stadium, the cemetery is almost hidden, marked only by a single fence line and a couple of ornamental benches. There is no gate and no sign to signify what is here. Its condition is not unique to Daniel Island. African-American cemeteries like this one have been described as storehouses of history and they are rapidly disappearing across the nation, taking with them treasured information about a rich, cultural heritage.
“Dr. O,” as his family and friends call him, knows this spot on Daniel Island well. It has become his personal mission, and perhaps his life’s calling, to see that it is both preserved and restored. He is the grandson of the late renowned Master Blacksmith Philip Simmons, who was born on the island in 1912. Dr. O’s great-great grandfather, William Simmons, who helped raised Philip while he was a young boy on Daniel Island, is buried in this cemetery, as well as other relatives.
“When I was a boy, I often wondered about my ancestors because my grandfather always told stories about his grandfather and his grandmother,” continued Dr. O. “They were like the center of his world. In the same way that he was the center of my world…Because he took care of us.”
And now, Dr. O wants to take care of them. He knows that his ancestors are from Africa and Barbados. He’s not certain if any were enslaved, but there is a good likelihood that at a least some of them were. Looking out over the property, he reflected on what this place once was, and what it has become.
“I feel sad,” he said. “I feel sad at the neglect, and just the avoidance. And I don’t place the blame for the neglect and avoidance on Daniel Island…just on the relatives of the people who are here. Because if we cared, and we demonstrate that we care, then certain conditions won’t be allowed to manifest. It’s when we withdraw our attention that anything can happen.”
Dr. O wasn’t aware this Daniel Island cemetery even existed when he was growing up, first in Charleston and then in New York City. He learned of it several years ago, while listening to a presentation by local author Herb Frazier, who wrote the book Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories of Cainhoy, Wando, Huger, Daniel Island, and St. Thomas Island. Frazier mentioned interviewing Philip Simmons and visiting the cemetery with him.
“I’ve been coming ever since,” said Dr. O, who holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Social Science from Fordham University, as well a Master’s Degree in Archaeology and a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Florida. “For me, it satisfies a longing that I’ve had.”
One day, while visiting the cemetery in 2012, Dr. O felt his ancestors convey a message just for him. They told him it was time to honor this place, he recalled, and the people laid to rest here. He took the message to heart and immediately paid a visit to Jane Baker in the Daniel Island Property Owners Association Office. That led to meetings with the founders and officers of the Daniel Island Historical Society. A year later, Dr. O has secured support from both groups for the project.
He also formed a new charitable organization called The Gullah Society, of which he serves as Executive Director, to head up the effort. Builders of Our Heritage, an organization dedicated to building a stronger community through greater cultural appreciation, and Family TYES SC, a multi-faceted initiative that focuses on impacting the self-esteem and self-concepts of culturally diverse youth, have also joined the cause.
“When we learned that Dr. O was interested in restoring this special and sacred place on Daniel Island, we knew it was important for us to get involved,” said Brenda Thorn, president of the Daniel Island Historical Society. “This project is closely aligned with our mission to share and preserve the island’s stories with both residents and visitors. Honoring the people buried there is not just the right thing to do, it is quite simply our obligation as a community.”
Already, the project has earned a $5000 grant from the Daniel Island Community Fund. Lewis Porcher, who serves as CEO of Builders of Our Heritage, has been hard at work over the last several months filming and producing a documentary on the project that will be used to raise awareness of the group’s efforts (visit www.gsociety.org to view the video).
“It’s a beautiful site,” said Porcher, describing the cemetery’s location and traditions that might have been associated with the sacred spot. “…It opens up the discussion about the history of Daniel Island…Family members would often have picnics near the resting places of their ancestors. It gave them a sense of tranquility, a sense of connection with their ancestry, and it amplified a sense of belonging.”
Dr. O will also be co-teaching a course entitled “Design with Culture: Documenting, interpreting and preserving Charleston Gullah Traditions in Cemeteries” at the College of Charleston beginning in early 2014. Students will be conducting research, collecting oral histories and doing survey work at the Daniel Island site as part of the course.
“The project will be a springboard for being able to locate and develop other burial grounds on this island, as well as in the City of Charleston and beyond,” said Dr. O, who now resides in Mount Pleasant. “…From this project, the Gullah Society has also been invited to take part in a project on Edisto Island.”
While working on his Master’s Degree, Dr. O spent time in Africa learning about the people and cultures that had such a lasting impact on the African American community in the Lowcountry. He hopes to one day take his students there so they can study the important connections between the two places.
“It is essential that we tie it in,” he said. “Particularly if we want to have a clearer and better understanding of the deeper meanings of why people did the things they did.”
Those African traditions were likely brought to Daniel Island, where Dr. O’s family members once lived and worked. Lewis Porcher hopes the cemetery restoration project will help raise awareness about a history that has long been forgotten, particularly among young African Americans.
“This is something to stimulate their desire to learn more about who they are,” said Porcher. “…We often only think about the negative aspects (of African-American history), but there are so many positive wonderful stories that could be gleaned from these kinds of efforts. As you learn about the people who lived in these places and how they not only survived but thrived, there is that possibility of healing a lot of wounds, clearing up misconceptions.”
“The DI Sacred Burial Ground project is important because it provides information which helps us discover some of the many stories of how our ancestors lived and created place,” added Ramona LaRoche, of Family TYES SC and Lowcountry Africana, who will be conducting genealogy research on individuals buried at the cemetery. “Discovery and sharing of these life events help us create cultural sites, which add cohesion in our lives.”
Another goal of the project is to have the Daniel Island’s African-American cemetery sites added as a stop on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a coastal passage connecting North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida that recognizes the significant and lasting contributions of the Gullah Geechee people.
“With the location of Daniel Island being at the very center of the corridor and the African American history of the Daniel Island area…it’s just a perfect place to develop a new tourism stop for the heritage-minded tourists that are coming through,” added Porcher.
Dr. O and his team are hoping others in the Daniel Island community, as well as in the Charleston region, will also see the value in the work they have started by investing in the project. In addition to research, plans for the cemetery project include creating a main entrance featuring brick masonry and a Philip Simmons’ inspired gate, a walkway from the existing recreational path, landscaping and other enhancements.
“We’re hoping to raise funds from both corporate and private donations,” he said. “They will be investing in the community…In addition to honoring these sacred burial grounds, they will also be creating places where people can visit and reflect.”
Dr. O. recently learned that his great great-grandmother, Sarah Simmons, wife of William and grandmother to Philip, is buried in an African-American cemetery along Ralston Creek in Daniel Island Park. He is left to ponder why she is there, and not alongside William and other family members in the site near the Family Circle Tennis Center. Through his project, he hopes her story and many others will come to light, so they can be shared and celebrated.
Even though the task ahead may be daunting at times, Dr. O. has no plans to give up, confident his ancestors are whispering their encouragement.
“I think they would say keep going….and I am obedient.”
For additional information on the Daniel Island Cemetery Restoration Project, visit the Gullah Society’s website at www.gsociety.org or contact the Daniel Island Historical Society at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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