They operate on a shoestring. Two are adjunct professors in the College of Charleston’s sociology department; one is a retired fireman-turned-genealogist and research historian. Together they are mapping the burial grounds of the city and striving to pay tribute to the lost.
Of immediate concern are the remains of 36 African souls uncovered in 2013 when the Gaillard Center was under construction. The remains were discovered during excavations near the corner of Anson and George streets. Since then, the bones have been carefully stored in a West Ashley facility, awaiting reinterment.
In the intervening years, the Gullah Society, run by Ajani (Ade) Ofunniyin with help from Joanna Gilmore, has honed its mission and ramped up its efforts, inspired by the desire to understand who these 36 people were and how their lives inform us about Charleston history.
The Gullah Society has received critical support from the city of Charleston (which provides office space), Brockington and Associates (which excavated the remains), historian Nic Butler of the Charleston Public Library (who provided historical context), Theodore Schurr and Raquel Fleskes of the University of Pennsylvania (who have overseen DNA testing of the remains) and the College of Charleston (whose architecture students have developed a set of memorial designs).
The results of the work done so far will be presented and discussed at public event called “Rise Up! Summoning the Power and Presence of African Ancestors in Charleston,” scheduled for 5 p.m. Nov. 7 at the college’s Randolph Hall, 66 George St.
Presenters will explain the status of the remains, share genetic discoveries and consider various designs for a proposed memorial at the site.
“This is an opportunity to acknowledge not only those buried on Anson Street but all those buried throughout the city,” Ofunniyin said.
There are thousands buried throughout the city, and most have been forgotten, destroyed, paved over, built upon, lost.
Accounting for the lost
“There are ghosts everywhere in Charleston,” said Grant Mishoe, The Gullah Society’s volunteer mapper of burial grounds.
Mishoe, a retired firefighter, has documented about 100 of these sites from the tip of the Charleston peninsula to Pittsburgh Avenue on the Neck Area.
Public burial grounds typically were established just outside the walls of the old city, and as the city expanded, new cemeteries were created farther and farther out, he said. The first public burial ground, established in the 1720s, was just west of the Old City Jail. Another was soon established nearby, and another near where the Medical University sits today, then another where The Citadel stadium now is located.
The public cemeteries typically were meant for anyone who couldn’t manage to get interred in a churchyard: working people, immigrants, the indigent, a few freed slaves. During the 18th century, private burial societies were formed to secure land and manage the logistics of death. People paid membership dues, which bought them the privilege of a reliable burial. Many blacks ended up in these cemeteries, some of which survive today.
It’s hard to calculate all that has been lost. Municipal records help, Mishoe said. But the city’s many small, private burial grounds have fallen victim to inexorable development and neglect. As the cemetery managers age and pass away, often no one is left to oversee the properties. And, historically, a failure to pay city taxes or maintain the grounds can lead to forfeiture.
“If you lose a generation, you lose a cemetery,” Mishoe said.
He estimated that 80 percent of black cemeteries have been disturbed in some way.
“The problem with African-American cemeteries, and white cemeteries for that matter, is that cemeteries are like a boat: The best day is the day you build it, and the day you sell it.” When it’s in use, it requires perpetual care and is a drain on the budget.
Testing the bones
Thanks to a National Geographic grant and the work of College of Charleston student Adeyemi Oduwole, The Gullah Society engaged anthropology professor Theodore Schurr at the University of Pennsylvania to scrutinize DNA samples extracted from the uninterred bones of the Anson Street dead and from 80 cheeks among the living here in Charleston.
“The basic idea behind the project in doing DNA testing is to try to better understand the genetic backgrounds of the persons interred, the genetic markers signifying African descent and possible genetic connections to people living today in the Charleston area, though there’s no guarantee that will be the case,” Schurr said. “We are using genetics to gain some insights into who these people were, where they came from, and to compare (the data) to contemporary Africa and (Charleston).”
Results of the first phase of analysis will be shared at the Nov. 7 presentation.
Schurr said DNA markers can be captured from the tissue of living volunteers within a couple of months, but analyzing the bone samples is more complicated. It requires careful decontamination to remove any modern DNA that might have adhered to the bones as a result of recent handling or encounters with underground organisms, then the testing of a small amount of pulverized tissue.
Results from such testing often lead to surprises, he said.
“You may find connections to very far, distant places that you didn’t imagine you’d find,” Schurr said. And when the DNA results are combined with anthropological and biological analysis of size, weight, health, diet, age and more, a relatively detailed picture emerges from the mist of time, enabling scholars to deduce what these people ate, when they typically reproduced, whether they were injured or compromised by hard labor and how they were treated in death.
“We’ll be able to put together a more complex view of who these individuals were,” Schurr said.
Nathaniel Walker, a professor of architectural history, had his students last semester in his Architecture of Memory class conceive alternatives to the looming John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square. The project attracted attention.
Normally, he wouldn’t teach the same class two semesters in a row, but the exercise proved so constructive, and a new need arose — this Gullah Society project — so Walker dove back into the realm of memory, examining with a new group of students how the past might be communicated in shape and form and structure.
“We need more monuments not about white supremacy, but more about African resiliency and accomplishment,” he said.
Not surprisingly, students once again came up with a range of exciting options that “rely on cultural themes and norms to help animate a public debate,” Walker said. “The goal is to build a bridge, a tangible bridge between lost ancestors we’ll probably never know and people living today” — and to build a bridge between Charleston and Africa.
Fourteen students are examining West African design and iconography, craft traditions and more “to draw out existing cultural threads,” Walker said.
They have been encouraged to think about tradition, but also to find ways such tradition can be expressed through modern, progressive design.
To do so, they considered public feedback collected by The Gullah Society, which polled residents about what they wanted a memorial to achieve. Some respondents said they wanted to feel proud, others said they wanted to mourn, still others sought to renew their faith.
“Even if none of these designs inform the final product, we’ll have done our jobs,” Walker said.
Work to be done
Scott Watson, director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, said the city meets regularly with The Gullah Society and helps to foster community engagement so the project can achieve its goals as a public enterprise.
“Word is kind of getting out there, and people are wanting to see where they fit into the process,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not simply a matter of getting the story resolved. We want to make sure we’re encapsulating historical facts, scientific knowledge and anthropological information in ways that brings interest and passion to our study of local history.”
Ofunniyin and Gilmore have been busy working at a burial site on Monrovia Street that was associated with Zion-Olivet Presbyterian Church. The church originally was located on Calhoun Street, Ofunniyin said. Then it moved to Cannon Street. (The property was sold in 2015 and the congregation relocated to North Charleston.) Over the years, the burial grounds were neglected.
But The Gullah Society hopes to restore and preserve the site as well as draw attention to it, and to all the others like it throughout the city.
“Our heritage and history has been erased and obscured,” Ofunniyin said. “It’s hard for African Americans to take an interest in something they’ve been told doesn’t exist. We are reconnecting people to history and to families that were broken apart or that migrated away.”
Gilmore said the community feedback so far has been encouraging.
“One person said, ‘The conversation makes me feel complete,’ ” she noted. “It shows the potential of the project.”