It's been six years since the skeletal remains of 36 unidentified people were found in downtown Charleston. They are now returning to the ground.
But their upcoming reburial involves far more than a solemn adherence to state and local laws.
The May 4 ceremony will be preceded by a week of special events to celebrate the lives of the deceased and countless others like them who never got their due.
Nic Butler, who researched the history of the Gaillard Center site — where the graves were uncovered during its renovation — said it's safe to say this reinterment, led by Dr. Ade Ajani Ofunniyin and the Gullah Society, is unprecedented, at least in the Charleston area.
"I think you can describe this work as a reaction to the missed opportunities for similar attention and commemoration in previous discoveries of human remains on the peninsula in the past century or so," he said.
Charleston's poor and enslaved people often were buried in unmarked graves in grounds that were redeveloped after they became filled, a practice that continued into the early 20th century.
"People who were disrespected in life were again disrespected in death as their remains were disturbed for modern construction projects," Butler said.
This reburial "represents the desire to break this cycle, to pause for a moment to honor and commemorate the lives of forgotten people who endured the prejudices and abuses of the past."
The remains of 36 anonymous people of African descent were uncovered in 2013 during construction of the Gaillard Center, and they could be reinterred there early next year.
But first, those working on the project hope to learn more about them — where they came from and even possible ties to those living today — and start a broader discussion about how they should be remembered. A public event Saturday at the Gaillard Center will move that discussion along.
Not just 'black history'
The 36 sets of remains, unearthed by surprise in 2013 during a dig tied to the Gaillard renovation, started a broader community conversation that goes well beyond the remains found on the site.
The work from the Gullah Society has brought in funding and attention from National Geographic, the University of Pennsylvania and the city of Charleston.
Forensic analysis dates the burials to between 1750 and 1800. Some of the children, women and men were born in Africa while others were likely born in South Carolina. The land was never marked as a burial ground.
The discovery was not unlike one in 2001, when broken grave markers and a brick burial crypt with human remains were found during work to build the College of Charleston's new Addlestone Library.
The college worked with the Diocese of Charleston, which previously owned the property but had thought any graves had been moved before it bought the land from the Brown Fellowship Society, a burial society. But the remains might have come from as many as four historic cemeteries.
Then-College of Charleston President Alex Sanders formed a group to plan a commemorative service in conjunction with relocating the graves to Magnolia Cemetery and to plan a monument at the college library. He said the discovery offered a chance for the college and the Catholic Diocese to right a historical wrong — building over sacred ground such as a graveyard.
With the Gaillard discovery, even more effort was made to right that wrong.
"It's not just about celebrating 'black history,' " Butler said. "It's about acknowledging and commemorating an important part of Charleston history."
In a little more than two months, the remains of 36 African-Americans will be reburied in a small patch of ground near George and Anson streets.
'It's our responsibility'
During a presentation about the Gaillard remains at Simmons-Pinckney Middle School, an eighth-grade student asked: Do they have names?
That question helped inspire Saturday's ceremony, which will be the first of the events related to the reburial.
Each of the 36 people will receive names influenced by different regions in Africa where they have roots, based on DNA testing.
"We feel it's up to us, it’s our responsibility to give them an identity, give them names, give them closure in the most honorable, respectable way that we can," said La'Sheia Oubre, education and community engagement coordinator for the Gullah Society.
The naming ceremony will take place at the McLeod Plantation on James Island, specifically near an African American burial ground across Country Club Drive from the plantation's entrance.
It will also be close to Wappoo Creek, a nod to the importance of water. It's a symbol for healing, cleansing, spirituality, freedom and as a recognition of the African ancestors who didn't make it on their forced trips to the United States, said Ofunniyin, who is an an anthropologist and director of the Gullah Society.
In another effort to fill in gaps about who the people were, researches from the University of Pennsylvania on May 2 will discuss results from their ongoing look at the DNA of the remains.
Dozens of local residents also had their DNA analyzed by the researchers and received those results earlier this year.
The reburial of the remains will be a celebration. A community gathering. An honoring of their influence since they were uncovered.
The ceremony will use traditions that are African, including music and art.
“These traditions that we’re reintroducing to African descendant people are traditions that are familiar to their soul but not familiar to them because it’s been covered up by so many centuries of forgetfulness,” Ofunniyin said. “We’re not living in that time anymore where we have to pretend who we are."
Boxes holding the remains of six people — two women, two men and two children — will be carried by pallbearers, and taken to their resting place, by the corner of Anson and George streets, near the Gaillard.
The boxes will be covered in indigo, a color and plant of significance: Enslaved people were responsible for much of South Carolina's production of indigo, an important early cash crop.
After the procession, the remains of the six people will join those of the 30 others, who will already be located in a vault.
Messages to the remains collected ahead of the burial, including the day of, will be placed inside boxes. Dancing, Gullah spirituals, poetry and Native American and African drumming will accompany the lowering of the remains into their new resting place.
A celebration of music, dance and other artwork will continue into the afternoon.
"If it wasn't because of them, we would not be where we are," Oubre, the Gullah Society's education and community engagement coordinator, said of the remains. "Because of them, we are."
To the organizers of the event, the remains represent something more than just the bones of 36 people.
It's an opportunity to tell their stories, as best they can, and bring dignity to ancestors who were forgotten in the past. It's a chance to highlight the importance to preserve sites in Charleston to learn more about where Charlestonians, not just African Americans, came from. And to educate those alive today, especially young people, in the areas of archaeology, science and history.
Doing so is a privilege, Ofunniyin said.
“I’m not saying just the African descended people, I’m saying all people. Because the things that happened to African people happened in relation to other people,” he said.
When the remains are all reunited into the vault, it will be closed, sealed and lowered into the ground. Once that happens, the hope is that the conversation initiated by their discovery will not be buried along with them.