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.
The city had planned to rebury the remains at St. Johns Reformed Episcopal Church, just across Anson Street, but that didn't sit well with Dr. Ade Ajani Ofunniyin, an adjunct College of Charleston professor and founder of The Gullah Society. He thought they should be returned to a spot as close as possible to their original resting places, and he also felt the community should be more involved in the process.
Ofunniyin began sharing his thoughts with city officials. In March, the city awarded the society a contract for up to $25,000 to consult on the reinterment.
Ofunniyin said the process for creating a memorial and reburial ceremony will be shaped by public input, not by any existing script.
"We definitely understand archaeology and science. That's well understood, but the human dynamics are what's always challenging when you're dealing with untold stories and mysteries," he said.
"This, quite frankly, is a mystery. Who were those people? How did they get there?"
'We'd at least try'
When the remains were recovered in 2013, the bones were examined forensically, subjected to tests that determined they likely died between 1760 and 1800 and had ancestors who came from Africa, meaning the remains were likely those of slaves.
Historian Nic Butler researched the ownership records of the Gaillard site near George and Anson streets, said Joanna Gilmore of The Gullah Society.
"It was never marked as a burial ground, and it was owned by William Ellis (who also owned a plantation on James Island)," she said. During other times, the property also was owned by George Anson, as well as the Gadsden family.
During the coming week, the society will play host to Theodore Schurr and Raquel Fleskes, two bioarchaeological researchers from the University of Pennsylvania. They will take DNA samples from the 36 remains and also will hold a DNA workshop from 2-5 p.m. Saturday at the Gaillard Center.
At the workshop, the researchers will explain their work and also interview and take DNA samples from 36 volunteers.
"We just want to encourage a conversation about ancestry and identity here in Charleston,” Gilmore said.
Those attending Saturday whose last names are Gadsden or Ellis will be more likely to be selected for the DNA analysis because their name gives them a slightly greater possibility of having a genetic link to the remains, she said.
"The chance of that is pretty slim," Gilmore said, "but we thought rather than having a completely random sample, we’d at least try to make that connection.”
The story the bones tell
The DNA results eventually will shape the next stage of the discussion: How should the remains be reinterred?
Ofunniyin felt strongly the remains should be put back as close as possible to their original site, so the city hired Brockington Cultural Resources Consulting to dig at the Gaillard site last year to determine if anything would prevent reburial there. The team identified a possible space in which the remains could be placed between the Gaillard Center and George Street, not far from Anson Street.
Still to be determined is what sort of monument or memorial should be created to mark the reinterment spot.
"My argument has been that it deserves to be substantial. I don't mean substantial in physical scale, but substantial," Ofunniyin said. "I think that could begin with a more accurate telling of the story of Charleston."
Also to be determined is what sort of service or ceremony should take place. There's a thought that it could take place in February, which is black history month, but there are few details beyond that.
City Attorney Susan Herdina said the society’s contract also calls for developing a lecture program that would engage students at local schools and possibly incorporate those students into the upcoming ceremony.
"He (Ofunniyin) has this passion and thought we should really expand the reburial to more than just a reburial and use this as an opportunity to educate the community on this African burial ground," Herdina said.
Ofunniyin said the monument and memorial service ultimately can lead to a greater awareness of Charleston's enslaved and its enslavers.
"That's the story that those bones tell, but, more broadly, it's the story that Charleston tells," he said. "But it's a story we don't often hear being told in Charleston."