GEORGETOWN — Time and again, Marilyn Hemingway said Georgetown's Gullah Geechee community has not had the opportunity to honor its enslaved ancestors.
The reinterring and recognition of their commingled, previously mishandled remains is a good place to start, she said.
"This isn't healing everything, at all, but I do believe this gives us an opportunity to create a process on how we honor and respect our ancestors," said Hemingway, president of the Gullah Geechee Chamber of Commerce.
Holy Cross Faith Memorial Church in Litchfield's Rev. Will Keith and lead forensic analyst of the remains Bill Stevens attended a reintering ceremony May 23 to pray over and speak on the history of the enslaved.
“The names of these individuals and the full stories of their lives are unknown. But they are not forgotten,” said Georgetown County Administrator Angela Christian. “It’s time to lay them to rest again with all the dignity and respect they deserve.”
The remains were originally unearthed and commingled during residential construction on Hagley Plantation in 2006, according to a press release about the event. The developer alerted the county of its findings and according to the county, that is when Stevens, Richland County deputy coroner and forensic anthropologist, was brought in to analyze the remains further.
Through Stevens' years of research alongside Georgetown County's coroner at the time, Kenny Johnson, he and Johnson found that the remains were originally buried at what was St. Mary's Chapel on the plantation. The chapel is believed to have been built in 1859 by an enslaved master carpenter named Renty Tucker.
Stevens said Tucker's enslavers, the Weston family, sent him to England to learn how to build intricate and beautiful chapels such as St. Mary's. The Westons, like many other slave-owning families, were of Episcopal faith.
The Westons were known to be less cruel than other slave families, Stevens said, which is why they likely wanted him to learn master carpentry. Stevens emphasized, though, that this does not excuse the fact they still enslaved people such as Tucker.
Hemingway said owners such as the Westons are believed to have instilled their faiths onto their slaves, though, as a form of oppression, complicating the idea that the Westons wanting Tucker to know carpentry is a positive one.
"These slaves more than likely were Islamic, not Christian," Hemingway said, emphasizing the importance of understanding slave culture and heritage.
Tucker's chapel was burned in 1931, though the head stones and grave markers of the cemetery remained. Stevens found that while the remains were unearthed in 2006, the grave markers were bulldozed in the late 1970s by the funeral home that was contracted to move them by the residential developer.
Unfortunately, Stevens said, that moving of the remains never happened.
"(The developer) hired the services of a funeral home to ... relocate the cemetery to another location, but we don't believe that that happened," Stevens said.
Hemingway said that in the past, Holy Cross Faith Memorial Church was a predominantly Black church, and Keith explained that the church came to be after the Emancipation Proclamation when former slaves gathered to educate their children.
It was from those school houses the church was born, Keith said. While the church's makeup is quite different now, it is an important mission for Keith to continue to honor his church's heritage and be inspired by it rather than halted by it.
Keith also said he understands the Episcopal faith was sometimes oppressively instilled onto slaves. Because of this, while he looks forward to honoring the remains of the enslaved, he hopes to not be the spotlight of the ceremony.
"I don't know if it's my place to be front and center, and luckily in our worship tradition the leader of the service certainly doesn't have to be in the spotlight," Keith said. "The mechanics of (the service) are my responsibility, but as far as the issues related to race, I think others will speak better on it."
Hemingway is grateful those who found the remains in 2006 gave them to the county, and that the county wants to honor her Gullah Geechee ancestors. She hoped that this reinterring would be the beginning of a conversation on how to form an official process for honoring slave remains that are found during development.
With the high volume of development in Georgetown County, specifically in the Waccamaw Neck, this won't be the last time remains are found, she said.
"I think if we develop a process for who should be involved when bones are discovered — from the cultural point of view, the heritage point of view — then moving forward we can continue to have these events that will lead to closure on a certain part of our history," Hemingway said.
While the remains were laid to rest, Stevens said DNA had been collected from them and will continue to be tested. Stevens said he hopes to register the DNA in public databases so they can be found on sites such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com.
Maybe, Stevens said, folks can research their lineage easier this way, and better understand and appreciate their ancestors and heritage.